They loom on the horizon throughout Lee County, wind turbines upwards of 900 feet tall juxtaposed against farm fields.
Mendota Hills Wind Farm, with its 63 turbines, encroached upon not only the county’s rural landscape but also the state’s in 2003.
Others came to Lee County. Wind farm developers thrust more than 200 wind turbines into America’s bucolic heartland.
Some neighbors accustomed to having clear views far into the distance were enraged. Nights when they could sit on their lawns to catch sight of the Milky Way or watch fireworks were over.
Lee County has lessons to offer Boone County, where residents expect Irish company Mainstream Renewable Power to submit an application within the next few years to build a $300 million to $400 million wind farm with as many as 100 turbines on 12,000 acres in Boone County’s Manchester and LeRoy townships.
Sometimes, Lee County residents warn, displeasure never dies.
A man named Frank, who refused to provide a last name, said he was the owner of Frank and Diana’s Place on Paw Paw’s main drag. He made it clear that he’s never accepted the wind farms that drivers glimpse as soon as they leave the outskirts of town.
“Do I like wind farms? No. I don’t like them,” he said.
Others in town never understood the rage. They’ve seen some proof of the positive hype: jobs, increased property tax revenue for taxing bodies and extra income for farmers.
“I know a lot of guys work on them out here,” said Mike Weeks, owner of Poor Boys West, a joint known for its burgers. “They’re good jobs.”
More wind farms in the region mean greater potential for his business, he said.
“Why would anybody be against them?” Weeks asked. “I definitely appreciate that they’re up.”
By the numbers
Illinois State University’s Center for Renewable Energy has taken a look at Illinois’ 23 largest wind farms. Lee County made the list five times because of turbines associated with Mendota, GSG Wind Farm, Shady Oaks Wind Farm, Big Sky Wind Farm and Lee-DeKalb Energy Center.
Together, they generate close to 700 megawatts of energy. A single 1-megawatt wind turbine generates enough electricity to power at least 240 households, which means nearly 700 megawatts could provide enough energy for more than 150,000 homes.
The Center for Renewable Energy’s economic impact study indicated that, as of June 2012, some of the benefits of the 23 largest wind farms were:
n Approximately 19,047 full-time-equivalent jobs during construction periods with a total payroll of more than $1.1 billion;
n About $28.5 million in yearly property taxes for local economies;
n About $13 million in extra annual income for Illinois landowners leasing their land to the wind farm developer.
n A total economic benefit of $6 billion over the life of the projects.
Rumors swirl that farmers get paid thousands if they permit turbines on their properties. And, according to Minneapolis-based Windustry, lease terms vary “but general rules of thumb are: $2,500 to $8,000 per turbine, $3,000 to $4,000 per megawatt of capacity, or (2 to 4 percent) of gross revenues.”
A neighbor’s perspective
When Mendota Hills went up, 63-year-old Kendall Guither from the nearby village of Walnut went to check out the turbines.
He didn’t think too much about them – just that they were “kind of big.” He questioned their efficiency and didn’t necessarily care for the turbines’ aesthetics or their effect on the landscape.
Then a wind farm was built next to his farm of 650 acres, and he joined the Informed Farmers Coalition, a group of Lee, Bureau and Whiteside county landowners and community members.
They are doing their best to tell others that wind farm developers often are misleading.
The “whoosh-whoosh” of the wind turbines irritates Guither. Then there’s the noise from the turbines’ generators, and sometimes that’s worse. And there’s the fact that he can walk through his home and find shadow flicker in all but one of the 11 rooms. He’s prone to vertigo, and being in his fields or yard gives him the same unsettled experience as amusement rides or an IMAX theater.
“That shadow is moving around you, and it’s exactly that same effect,” he said. “I didn’t know it was going to be an issue until they were building. It was too late.”
He actually spoke at one of the hearings that Boone County Board members held before voting to keep its setbacks in place for wind farms. The code remains unchanged, requiring 1,000-foot setbacks from primary structures, such as homes.
He wanted other farmers to know that they very well could experience the same vertigo if wind farms proliferate.
“We all share the same sun. We all share the same planet,” he said.
Push for wind power
Legislators are debating wind energy because of the Illinois Power Agency Act, which mandates at least 25 percent of electricity comes from renewable energy by June 2025, of which the majority must be wind power.
Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, has introduced legislation to create a statewide standard for wind energy facilities, which would remove some local control over wind farm development. It would establish standards for removing wind turbines from properties if that becomes necessary.
And there also are the job prospects. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 3,200 wind turbine technician jobs in 2012, and that’s expected to increase approximately 25 percent – or by 800 – by 2022.
Not requiring a four-year degree, wind turbine technicians generally work outdoors and at great heights. They work in confined spaces when doing maintenance and typically earn more than $40,000 a year.
And the push for renewable energy is rolling throughout the nation. Illinois has the fourth-highest capacity for wind energy, and the American Wind Energy Association notes what the ranking implies: 1 million is the equivalent number of homes that Illinois wind farms can power.
Dale Balder, who can see Mendota Hills Wind Farm from his Compton property, has eliminated his gas and electricity bills with renewable solar energy. He has a solar panel on his property, which just recently replaced a wind turbine.
He founded his company, Heavenly Winds Inc., a solar and wind turbine dealership, nearly 15 years ago.
“You own your property,” Balder said. “You’re entitled to do what you want with the property if it’s not outrageously wrong. (A wind farm) is not like a speed strip going down here, running cars all the time. You can hear swish.
“I don’t have a grain bin in my yard that stands up 40 feet, but I don’t consider them a thing of beauty.”
Other community members barely remember a time when Mendota wasn’t on the horizon. Aleigha Lampson, 22, went to Paw Paw High School and took a field trip to one of the wind farms.
“I’m kind of used to them now,” she said. “I think they’re pretty at night with the sunset. I don’t pay much attention to them actually.”
Beyond aesthetics, wind farms can churn air currents into dollars as well as energy.
The Paw Paw School District receives approximately $440,000 from 64 wind turbines a year, including 53 of Mendota’s, said Interim Superintendent Bob Priest.
The property tax revenues have helped fill the gap from money lost in state aid, which amounts to about $120,000 a year.
Priest has been with the district for nine years, and he said that he appreciates the wind turbines because of the property tax revenues, environmental benefits such as a lessening reliance on coal, and what he considers a small geographic footprint.
“Once again, I’m probably (in) the minority,” Priest acknowledged. “For the people whose land they’re on, they can still grow their crops.”
Steward farmer Elmer Rhoads is a Mendota Hills Wind Farm participant. He has five turbines on his property. He receives a check every six months from the owner, which once was Australian-based Babcock & Brown Wind Partners, a company now known as Infigen Energy.
He confirmed that those permitting the company to use their properties negotiated individually.
“We all negotiated, but we all basically walked out with the same,” he said, not answering questions about the dollar figure attached to the arrangement. “I don’t have to worry about buying steak.”
Rhoads has provided tours since around the time Mendota Hills’ turbines started to catch the wind. He believes roughly 5,000 people have heard his spiel.
“People come here with negative thoughts,” he said. “By the time they leave, they understand what it’s about.
“There’s a lot of people out there that want to be recognized, and they don’t have the information, and they won’t dig into it. The people who speak the loudest are the ones that know that property owners are going to receive the revenue. They have to look at them, and they don’t want to.”
A holding pattern
David Loomis, director for the Center for Renewable Energy at Illinois State University, said no wind farms went online in 2013, even though some of the developers had special-use permits.
“We’re kind of in this holding pattern,” he said.
Loomis thinks possible reasons for the project delays are the need for developers to first secure an entity wanting to buy the electricity, low wholesale prices for electricity and lower demand for electricity.
Chris Henkel, Lee County’s zoning administrator, said those on the pro and con sides tend to come out voicing their concerns whenever a new wind farm is proposed. A mainstream proposal to build a wind farm took more than 30 hearings, he said.
And now it has triggered a lawsuit. More than 50 residents have joined together for a lawsuit against Lee County to void special-use permits approved for the construction of a wind farm with more than 50 turbines in East Grove and Hamilton townships. The permits were approved last year.
“These projects are only inevitable if people don’t pay attention to where they’re being proposed,” said Richard Porter, the Rockford attorney representing the residents. “Get involved in the hearings. (Boone County residents) need to hire counsel. The public needs to come out.”
Lee County Board member Bob Gibler voted against the latest project that triggered the lawsuit. He looked at the issue from the perspective of whether he would want a wind farm in his backyard.
“Would you want one in yours?” he asked.
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