Wind farms go back only a decade in Illinois. The first one was Mendota Hills, near Paw Paw, a small village in the northwestern part of the state.
Lee County officials quickly approved the 63-turbine wind farm. The county’s zoning panel met just one night on the proposal.
In the years since, the county has given the green light for other wind farms – with essentially no opposition.
That’s not surprising. As the wind energy industry is quick to point out, poll after poll shows an overwhelming percentage of Americans support alternative energy.
But those who live near wind farms often are unhappy with turbines in their midst. They complain about the noise, shadow flicker and vibrations, among other things.
And they’re relating their experience to others. As a result, opposition to wind farms is becoming more organized – and more vocal.
The latest wind farm in northwestern Illinois – the three-county Green River project of Ireland-based Mainstream Renewable Energy – was bogged down for much of 2012 with hearings.
Neighbors of the proposed site attended public meetings regularly. But so did people from areas near other wind farms. They had nothing good to say about living near turbines.
One of those people is Lee County farmer Wesley Englehart, who lives in the middle of a wind farm near the small village of Compton. Five turbines are on his property.
He has a little advice for farmers who are approached by wind farm companies: “Run like hell the other way.”
In June, a 72-turbine wind farm – known as Shady Oaks – went online in Lee County’s Brooklyn Township. It started with some fanfare. In late May, Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon climbed up the inside of one of the turbines.
During a brief presentation beforehand, wind farm supporters spoke of the jobs that wind farms bring to a community. And three school superintendents – invited by wind farm companies – touted the benefits of increased preoperty tax revenue from turbines.
“All that good news without mentioning renewable energy, ” Simon said.
No wind farm opponents showed up. They hadn’t been invited.
So what does Englehart have against turbines?
They’re noisy, he said. While in his garage, he told a reporter to listen. A humming sound could be heard from nearby turbines.
He also said a turbine across the road will cause shadow flicker for a couple of hours later in the day during winter.
Years ago, Bruce Papiech of nearby Sublette approached Englehart about the wind farm that he was planning for Brooklyn Township.
At the time, Englehart felt comfortable with the idea. He signed a lease.
“I thought we were dealing with a local person,” Englehart said. “Pretty soon, he sold out.”
Mainstream Renewable Power ended up with the project, then sold it to Goldwind USA, a subsidiary of a Chinese company. (One objection to wind farms is that many are foreign-owned.)
For farmers who are interested in having turbines on their properties, Englehart advises them to put the towers farther from their homes. In his case, one turbine is within a quarter mile of his home. Four others are within a half mile.
Landowners, including Englehart, typically enter confidentiality agreements with wind energy companies, which means they are not supposed to reveal what they’re paid. However, he said he understands that his neighbors get the same amount – a flat fee every year.
Farmers ‘thrilled with turbines’
Windustry, a Minneapolis-based wind energy information organization, states on its website that wind lease terms can vary. But the rule ofthumb is that landowners are given $2,500 to $5,000 a year for each turbine, the group said. Larger turbines can mean bigger payments.
One industry group estimates an even higher number for farmers’ turbine payments. The Iowa Wind Energy Association says farmers get an average of $6,000 a year for each turbine in the Hawkeye State. Its executive director, Harold Prior, says he knows of a farmer in northwestern Iowa who gets $10,000.
“The farmers I speak with are thrilled with turbines,” he said. “They wished they had more of them.”
Prior estimates that about half of farmers who host turbines live on their farms. Many oftheir neighbors get “good neighbor” payments from wind energy companies, but he didn’t know how much they received.
As for noise, Prior said, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“If the turbines are making a lot of noise, then they’re having a mechanical problem,” he said. “If a turbine is operating properly, they make very little noise. It’s a very low swoosh. I’ve climbed them five times, been around them dozens of times.”
The opposition in Illinois and other Midwestern states, Prior said, is more organized than in Iowa.
“The mood is pretty dam positive with wind projects in Iowa,” he said.
Northwestern Iowa’s Pocahontas County, for instance, has seen virtually no opposition to wind farms, said Don McLain, the county’s zoning administrator.
Part of the reason is that the county is sparsely populated, he said. Pocahontas County’s population density is 12 per square mile, one-fourth of what it is in Lee County, Illinois. Pocahontas County has 217 turbines; Lee County has 232.
Pocahontas’ first wind farm was built in 2007.
“The wind farms don’t really go near any towns in our county,” McLain said. “Our experience has been very good. The development in our county has been very good, and the associated employment has been very welcome.”
That’s especially beneficial in a county with a declining population, he said.
The population dwindled by 15 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
Not many wind farms in works
Wind energy companies need two things for a successful project – a windy site and nearby access to transmission lines.
“The windiest sites have been built or are under leases,” said David Loomis, director of Illinois State University’s Center for Renewable Energy. “Companies are branching out to sites that are less windy and would need new transmission to be built to unlock the wind. ”
He said the industry isn’t planning many more wind farms now.
“We have this pent-up demand” said Loomis, an ISU economics professor in Bloomington. “We have a lot of wind farms that have been issued permits but haven’t been built yet.
“The question remains, Will those get built before the permits expire? No one wants to go out and do brand-new development until they see more movement on the existing permits.”
Examples of permitted-but-not-yet-operational wind farms are in Bureau and Ogle counties, both next door to Lee County.
As for Shady Oaks, Englehart wishes Goldwind’s plan had received more scrutiny. He regrets his decision to allow the turbines.
“I will be stuck with them for 25 to 30 years,” Englehart said.
“The turbines weren’t worth the money we’re getting.”
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