PRIMGHAR, Ia. – When the wind plows across Kelly Ney’s flat, rich soil, the noise from the half-dozen whirling turbines surrounding his fourth-generation farm sounds like a tornado bearing down on his home, he says.
“It’s pretty sad,” said Ney, pointing to the 300-foot-tall wind turbines that break up his tranquil prairie view. “The county has become a windmill landfill.”
Wind power has come to define Iowa in much the same way as corn, soybeans and pigs.
Politicians and power companies tout the state’s growing clean energy and its many benefits, including jobs, property tax revenues and $20 million annually that farmers and rural landowners earn in lease payments for hosting the giant turbines.
The state’s growing amount of green energy – Iowa leads the nation with 37 percent of its annual electricity portfolio – has helped attract billions of dollars in capital investment from Facebook, Microsoft and Google data centers and hundreds of jobs in the Des Moines area and Council Bluffs.
But Iowa’s growing energy harvest has birthed a new wave of opposition from critics who call wind turbines noisy, over-subsidized eyesores that can be dangerous. And groups have popped up across Iowa, most notably in Black Hawk and Palo Alto counties, seeking to stop local wind development.
Such resistance is expected to grow as MidAmerican and Alliant Energy, Iowa’s two largest utilities, pour nearly $5 billion into new wind generation in coming years.
As America increasingly sees opportunity in alternative energy, the growth of wind energy and resulting pushback from opponents is playing out around the United States.
With an investment of $143 billion, wind energy is seven times larger than a decade ago, growing to 82,143 megawatts, enough to power 24 million homes nationally.
Opponents elsewhere have raised familiar arguments against wind farms, from the tax credits they receive to the birds and bats they kill. Landowners have long objected to offshore wind development near pricey coastal real estate.
Robert Kennedy Jr. is among those fighting development off of Cape Cod, and President Donald Trump has railed against offshore wind development near his Scottish golf course, calling it “a blight on the stunning landscape.”
Yet in Iowa, wind energy has enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
“The fact that (former Democratic Sen.) Tom Harkin and (current Republican Rep.) Steve King both support wind energy should tell you about what it does for the state,” said David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
But rural debate has intensified over wind’s merits, drawing comparisons to the hotly contested hog confinements that pockmark Iowa’s soybean and corn fields – and foul the air and water, detractors say.
Peterson insists wind’s economics have been a “huge boon” for rural communities. Yet he acknowledges that the political power brokers and environmentalists pushing wind energy often do so from a distance.
“It is easy for those of us who don’t have to live by them to only reap the benefits,” he said.
An infusion of needed cash
Many rural Iowa counties, schools and towns struggling to survive amid declining jobs and population, hunger for the taxes that roll in with turbines.
Since 1969, Iowa’s small cities and rural places have lost more than 171,000 residents, while metropolitan areas have gained nearly a half-million people, Census data show.
“Rural Iowa needs something to put money and people back into the community,” said Daryl Haack, a Primghar farmer who agreed to allow turbines on his land. He and his wife receive about $20,000 annually in lease payments for two turbines.
MidAmerican Energy alone has paid $65 million in county taxes in Iowa and invested about $10 billion in wind energy since 2004, company officials say.
O’Brien County, which has the largest concentration of wind turbines in Iowa, expects to get $7.3 million annually in tax revenue from its 318 turbines. They produce 752 megawatts, enough energy to power 213,000 homes.
Every job that wind – or a nearby ethanol plant – brings to the area is one less son or daughter who leaves Primghar, a town of 900, Haack said. The O’Brien County wind farm needs about 30 permanent workers; the ethanol plant, about 50.
“That’s young men and women who will go to church, send their kids to school, pay taxes and buy groceries,” he said.
Janna Swanson understands the lure of the developers’ wind money.
“We could use the money. I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband farms. But we’ve heard too many stories and talked with too many people to sign a contract,” said Swanson, who helps lead the Coalition for Rural Property Rights, a group based in Palo Alto County that opposes Chicago-based Invenergy’s plans to build a wind farm in the area.
‘Bad neighbor policy’
Iowans such as Mason Fleenor, a cattle producer in Ida County, say they feel betrayed by the actions of neighbors and county officials who they believe have sold out to energy firms by allowing an influx of wind turbines across the landscape.
“They’re just greedy,” said Fleenor, 64, who, with his wife, Diane, built their dream home seven years ago in Ida County and planned to retire there.
“I’d move if I could,” said Fleenor, who struggles to sleep because a large bank of windows designed to give him a bucolic view of a pond he built is filled instead each night with synchronized blinking red lights mounted on top of the turbines.
Turbines also surround his cattle lot a couple of miles away. “Everywhere I go, I’ve got them. Every day, they’re blasting,” he said. “It’s like jets flying around the sky.”
“… They say they don’t hurt property values, but I say bullshit,” continued Fleenor, who put up a billboard literally flipping MidAmerican the bird. “They’re putting them right next to our houses.”
MidAmerican tries to limit its impact on neighbors, company leaders said, conducting studies on turbines’ noise, “flickers” from the blades that cross a home, and potential impact on birds and other wildlife.
“There’s no perfect way to make electricity,” said MidAmerican CEO Bill Fehrman, adding that coal, natural gas and hydro-electric plants all come with costs and environmental challenges.
“We figure out the energy resource that has the lowest impact on the environment, lowest impact on customers and the lowest costs,” he said. “The vast majority of people who live in these rural areas – when they see the opportunities with jobs, investment and taxes – want the projects.”
MidAmerican offers payments to neighbors who might be affected by them, even if the turbines aren’t on their property. The utility said the payments are substantial, but declined to say exactly how much.
Fleenor, who turned down MidAmerican’s “good neighbor” payment, calls it a “bad neighbor” policy that limits a homeowner’s right to sue.
He said many people who accepted the turbines on their land don’t live in the area. One owner “has two turbines, lives in Okoboji on the lake and inherited the farm,” he said. “They’re just putting the money in a CD,” or a certificate of deposit.
‘It sure helps a lot’
MidAmerican says its construction of 2,020 turbines across 23 counties has created about 3,800 jobs with $230 million in payroll.
The wind farms support 320 permanent workers earning an average of nearly $69,000 annually, a total of $22 million a year.
The investment and jobs help keep hospitals and schools open and pay for county roads and bridges, said Michael Fehr, who leads MidAmerican’s wind development. Wind revenue helps counties “maintain their rural way of life,” he said.
Wind power also has helped MidAmerican cut its carbon dioxide emissions, a large contributor to global climate change, by about 28 percent through 2016.
Franklin County wind farms are already generating about $3 million in annual property tax payments, said County Supervisor Gary McVicker. About $1 million of those taxes went toward the county government’s $17 million budget this year, he said.
“I don’t know about a windfall,” McVicker said, “but it sure helps a lot.”
The revenue will tick up. Property tax payments are still phasing in on a 2012-era wind farm.
And Alliant Energy has announced plans to more than double the energy produced at its 121-turbine, 200-megawatt Whispering Willow Wind Farm in Franklin County. After adding 500 megawatts there, the utility said the site will produce enough energy to power 215,000 homes.
McVicker said the controversy has been limited in Franklin County. People who don’t want wind turbines on their property don’t sign contracts.
Out his windows, he sees dozens of turbines, but he hardly notices them unless he’s checking which direction the wind is blowing.
“They’ve become part of the landscape,” he said.
Many Iowans also dislike what they see as “corporate welfare” for wind developers – the mix of state and federal production tax credits that subsidize the industry.
MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, for example, snagged $249 million in federal tax credits last year.
Fehrman, MidAmerican’s CEO, said federal production tax credits helped get the fledgling industry running. But they’re slated to end by 2020.
The credits help make wind, which has no ongoing fuel costs, the cheapest power available, followed by coal and natural gas. But even without the tax credits, the utility expects wind will be competitive with coal and natural gas, as technology and efficiencies improve over the next few years.
And, with its wind investment, MidAmerican has vowed not to increase its rates through 2029.
“No other utility can promise rate stability for 12, 13 years,” Fehrman said, adding that the credits “go back to customers” with wind development.
But Ney finds it ironic that his federal tax dollars help support an industry that’s degrading his family’s quality of life.
“Everything comes down to money,” he said.
‘It’s the Wild West in Iowa’
Much of the growing opposition to wind energy development in Iowa has roots in earlier debates over the Rock Island Clean Line, a proposed $2 billion, 500-mile overhead transmission line that would have funneled wind energy across 16 counties from northwest Iowa for use in Illinois and states further east.
In December 2016, the developer withdrew its petition to build here, pending the outcome of litigation in Illinois. Opponents feared the project would use eminent domain to take private property for the benefit of out-of-state energy consumers.
“That project did us no good,” providing no local benefits while generating significant opposition, Fehrman said.
Although wind farms have not used eminent domain, opponents say they still feel helpless to stop them. Even if landowners turn down towers on their own property, the massive turbines can feel imposing even a half-mile away.
And Iowa’s regulations for turbines are loose, often changing from county to county, opponents say.
“What regulatory environment? There’s nothing,” said Terry McGovern, a Clark College associate business professor who has become a leading wind opponent in Iowa. “It’s like the Wild West in Iowa.”
McGovern got interested in the wind debate when turbines started going up near his rural Earlville home in 2015. Since then, he’s spoken to groups around the state who oppose new wind projects.
“This is Iowa. As a people, we tend to be fairly easy-going, but there comes a point where enough is enough,” McGovern said.
As tough as it is to fight a nearby wind project in development, legal experts say residents have an even tougher battle after they’re up and spinning.
Bringing nuisance cases against nearby towers has proven a “mixed bag,” said Roger McEowen, the Kansas Farm Bureau professor of agricultural law and taxation at Washburn University School of Law in Topeka.
Landowners have to show that a wind farm is an unreasonable interference with their use and enjoyment of their property. And mere aesthetics are usually not enough to make such claims, he said.
Bill Hanigan, a Des Moines attorney, said wind nuisance cases follow the same legal logic as those against hog confinements, which are dependent on the circumstances of each farm and landowner.
Hanigan expects that as developers look for new places to put wind farms, cases will become more widespread in Iowa.
“Just as with the growth of the hog barn industry, nuisance claims increased,” he said. “You’ll see a similar increase in wind tower nuisance claims.”
Wind could be pitting ‘farmer against farmer’
Opponents and proponents agree that wind has divided some neighbors and communities.
Fleenor said he no longer socializes with a few longtime friends who agreed to place turbines on their land.
Third-generation Black Hawk County farmer Rick Green sees the division coming.
RPM Access plans to build 23 to 35 turbines that he says will mar his view and decommission nearby cropland.
Already, he can see the red lights from a wind farm some 30 miles away. They flash all night long.
“I think there are better places to plant these things than some of the most valuable farmland in the world,” he said. Each turbine takes up about half an acre.
Green crop dusts for area farms using helicopters and planes on his private airstrip. He worries about navigating around the massive towers to spray fields.
Months ago, he was one of the landowners being courted by RPM Access. At one landowner meeting, the company talked about offering farmers as much as $10,000 per year per turbine on their property. And $1,000 bonuses were offered for those who would sign contracts on the spot, he said.
“That’s a hard thing to say no to,” said Green.
But he did. Although he plans to fight the wind farm, he knows there’s little he can do to stop it.
“I understand they have a right to do what they want with their land,” he said. “… To me, it’s not personal. But I could see how this could get to be farmer against farmer real easy.”
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