PAYNE, Ohio – From the ground, the narrow aluminum ladder might as well extend to infinity. Actual height: 290 feet.
A Dispatch videographer straps on a protective harness, hard hat and safety glasses, joined by two employees of the farm’s operator, EDP Renewables. They are about to climb inside one of 55 wind turbines at Timber Road II wind farm in Paulding County.
The first steps are easy, even with 10 pounds of cameras and other gear.
Just resist the urge to look up, or down.
As the climbers ascend, their only rest is on three metal platforms, which are spaced out within the tower to break up the journey and catch any falling objects.
“The first thing that really hits you (is) the size in general, the gravity of just how much machinery goes into putting these things together,” said Jeremy Chenoweth, an EDP operations manager whose territory includes all of Ohio, and who made the climb.
Wind farms are a big, and growing, business in Ohio. They’re a part of the state’s clean-energy economy that has gone from near zero to more than $1 billion worth of spending in the past 10 years, with the potential to grow fourfold if every announced project is built.
But some neighbors view the turbines as an affront, spoiling the landscape with noise, the flicker of shadows from turbine blades and blinking red lights.
This is the gut-level underpinning of a Statehouse battle over rules on where turbines can be placed, a debate that will determine how much building will be allowed to occur.
On one side are the wind-energy industry, environmentalists and companies that want to increase the supply of clean power. On the other are some of the neighboring residents, along with a patchwork of conservative-leaning groups.
The state’s wind farms are all in northwestern Ohio, but regulators have approved others just outside of the Columbus metro area, with projects planned for Crawford, Champaign, Hardin and Logan counties, and still more in the pre-development stage.
So the debate about wind energy could be coming to your neighborhood, even if you live nowhere near northwestern Ohio.
Top of the world
Inside the wind tower, the climb takes about an hour, and the final steps are a strain. Muscles ache. Clothes are soaked with sweat.
But there is a reward. At the very top is a schoolbus-size room that holds a generator and control equipment.
On the ceiling is a clear plastic hatch that one of the EDP guys pops open.
Then, blue sky.
The three climbers step onto the roof for a gobsmacking view. The safety harness remains in place. It’s safe to stand.
Fort Wayne, Indiana, is visible, 22 miles to the west. And, if you stop to focus, you see the tiny rectangles of houses, on farms and along rural highways.
The turbine is turned off whenever somebody is working in it, so there is no electricity being generated. When active, the carbon-fiber blades slice through the air at speeds that can reach 185 mph at the tips. The top room and its contents weigh a crushing 70-plus tons, and send electricity down the tower through a series of high-voltage lines. The lines then go underground to connect with substations, and then meet up with interstate powerlines that feed into the country’s power grid.
Only from a distance, which is how most people see wind farms, does this giant machine look like a pinwheel.
Not many jobs
All 255 of the wind-farm turbines operating in Ohio have been built along a stretch of Paulding and Van Wert counties, where the land is flat and the winds are some of the most brisk. If you include turbines at homes and businesses, the statewide total is 302, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.
A typical turbine in northwest Ohio is 1.5 to 2 megawatts; the Timber Road II wind farm has a total 99 megawatts. For some perspective, a 2 megawatt turbine in moderate wind generates enough electricity in a year to provide for the needs off more than 500 houses, based on estimates cited by EDP.
When a wind farm is developed, there is a flurry of spending for parts and construction services. After that, the costs are minimal. The fuel – wind – is free, and the developer needs only a few people to do ongoing work.
One of those jobs belongs to Benjamin Werkowski, 28, local operations manager for EDP. He’s the first person up the ladder.
“I used to drive a dump truck, right out of high school, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “And then I was hauling stone and dirt at the first wind farm they put in Indiana, and it just sparked my interest, and I went from there.”
He lives in Van Wert, one of 23 full-time EDP workers who live in the area.
This small employment footprint means that there are no throngs of wind-industry workers to advocate for their business the way there would be for a power plant that runs on coal or nuclear and might employ hundreds of people. And, EDP’s headquarters is nowhere near, with a base in Spain and a main U.S. office in Houston.
EDP primarily interacts with its Ohio neighbors financially – lease payments to landowners, taxes to local governments, and charitable giving – and visibly, given the near-constant sight of the turbines.
This creates a dynamic that some people see as a conflict between the haves and have-nots, with some residents surrounded by turbines but receiving little or no money.
A constant presence
“It’s just very annoying, very unpleasant,” said Brenda DeLong, 61, interviewed on her front porch.
She lives on a lot that has been in her family for generations and was once part of her parents’ farm. Now, she has a view of Blue Creek Wind Farm, the state’s largest, along with parts of the Timber Road farms.
Near dusk on a Thursday, she begins to count the turbines. After a walk around the house, she is finished with 114, 115, 116.
“And that’s about all I see,” she said.
In other words, she can see nearly half of all the turbines on all of Ohio’s wind farms without leaving her 1-acre property.
She is a retired fourth-grade teacher and now spends most of her time volunteering for 4-H, the Red Cross and her church. She has three children and three grandchildren.
From her porch, she hears a near-constant sound, like a plane flying overhead, from the turbines. On some mornings and evenings, when the sun is behind the turbines, she sees a flicker of shadows on the walls of her house.
She feels like an essential part of her life – the outdoors around her home – has been taken away from her.
Rex McDowell, 69, a neighbor of DeLong’s, describes the area as the “Red Light District.” By way of explanation, he walks to the backyard, where each of the turbines has a red light that goes on for a moment, then off, and then on again. The lights act in unison. Together, they are bright enough to cast a red glow for miles.
The lights are there to help prevent collisions with aircraft and are required by federal aviation rules.
DeLong is part of a local group of opponents of wind energy, called Citizens for Clear Skies. One of the organizers is Jeremy Kitson, 41, who lives in a nearby township and is a high school teacher.
“I love how (wind-energy supporters) think we’re getting paid off by the Koch brothers,” Kitson said, referring to the politically active family behind the Kansas-based conglomerate Koch Industries. “Citizens for Clear Skies is just a lot of regular folks kicking in 25 bucks at a time.”
At state and local hearings dealing with wind energy, he is often in the audience and ready to speak, a familiar face for officials.
While he seems to relish the debate, DeLong is much more hesitant. But that hasn’t prevented her from making her views known. She even made a trip to Columbus in June to testify before an Ohio Senate panel about wind-energy regulations.
“Many who are pro-wind will never live near a turbine,” she told lawmakers.
Boost for schools
A few miles north and east of DeLong’s house is Wayne Trace High School, a rural school consolidated from three communities. Here, wind energy is a godsend, providing 11 percent of local tax revenue in the K-12 budget.
On a recent afternoon, one of the middle-school football teams practices on a field just west of the complex that houses the high school, middle school and district offices. The nearest wind farm is barely visible to the south.
“We just don’t have a lot of people seeking out the district for large industry,” said Ben Winans, the district’s superintendent. “The wind industry is one thing we can have.”
His district received $706,923 in taxes from wind turbines in the 2016-17 budget year. The wind money has allowed the district to increase staffing without raising taxes. The new hiring includes several reading specialists who work with students struggling to read at their grade level.
Winans grew up in the area and is an alumnus of the district he now runs. Though the wind turbines are barely visible from the school, he knows what it is like to be right next to them. His house, where he lives with his wife and children, has several turbines close enough to cast shadows on his walls.
He doesn’t mind.
“I’ve got one (turbine) on each end of my property,” he said. “I really don’t notice it anymore.”
Most wind-energy development has been in sparsely populated areas. But as demand grows, developers are moving closer to major cities.
The 255 active turbines in Ohio could be joined by 620 turbines at wind farms that regulators have approved, some of which are already under construction. In addition, there are at least a half-dozen other projects that are awaiting state approval, or are in a pre-application stage, based on filings and interviews with industry officials. The new wind farms represent more than $4 billion in spending.
With this pace of growth, researchers expect to see an increase in people who don’t like the turbines.
“It’s important to remember that this kind of opposition to any kind of infrastructure development is normal,” said Joseph Rand, a scholar who specializes in energy policy at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
He has taken a close look at how communities respond to renewable energy. Surveys show that a large majority of Americans support wind energy. At the same time, “people are inherently protective of place, of their landscape,” he said.
There are stereotypes at play. Wind supporters say the critics are uninformed or even delusional. Opponents say that wind supporters are motivated by money.
“Rarely do you see a nuanced perspective that has a fair story from both sides,” Rand said.
In his work, he hopes to determine the underlying motivations and find out how developers and communities can better respond.
State and local
One way to protect residents’ interests is through state and local regulations. Opponents of wind farms give the impression that the projects essentially receive a rubber stamp, with little consideration of the effects on residents and little skepticism of developers’ assertions. Also, local governments have a limited role in the process.
And yet, public records show an exhaustive and expensive review. For example, Blue Creek Wind Farm was approved by the Ohio Power Siting Board, with a multiyear review before the project went online in 2012. The board has broad authority on any utility-scale wind farm.
The board’s docket has 4,460 pages for Blue Creek, not counting two related cases, with extensive testing to estimate levels of noise, shadow flicker and other ramifications. The developer is a company that has since changed its name to Avangrid Renewables and has U.S. headquarters in Portland, Oregon.
According to filings, the developer projected that 39 houses would have shadow flicker of at least 30 hours per year. There is no legal standard for acceptable flicker, but 30 hours is often the guideline used by regulators.
Most of the residents of those houses have signed on to the project by either leasing property for the turbines, or by signing so-called “good neighbor” agreements.
With leases, property owners are signing a long-term contract to allow their land to be used to build a turbine and access roads. The payments vary, but are often in the range of $10,000 per turbine per year. The wind trade group says that annual lease payments in Ohio add up to more than $1 million, but less than $5 million.
Another type of contract is a neighbor agreement, which is for people who are near wind farms but have no turbines on their land. The residents are saying they will not object to the project in exchange for annual payments that are often in the $1,000 range. Winans’ family, for example, has such an agreement that pays $1,000 per year.
Avangrid gave special attention to the fewer than 10 households that did not sign any agreement and had more than 30 hours of flicker. In some cases, the company agreed to reduce the effects by shutting off certain turbines at certain times.
DeLong’s property is one of the majority that experience fewer than 30 hours. She does not recall any contact with the developer about flicker, noise or anything else.
“Nobody came to my door,” she said. It was an inauspicious start to what has been a bad relationship.
Paul Copleman, an Avangrid spokesman, had this response:
“This is a project that has roughly 250 participating landowners and that reflects a lot of effort to talk to a lot of people in the community, at kitchen tables and in living rooms and in public meetings,” he said. “We think the onus is on us to develop responsibly and talk to people about the benefits we feel the project delivers to everybody in the community.”
The competing interests collide in an ongoing debate about how much distance should be required between the turbines and nearby property lines.
In 2014, Ohio Senate Republican leaders expanded the required distance by making a last-minute amendment to an unrelated budget bill. The provision was largely in response to citizen concerns about wind farms.
Wind-industry advocates warned that the result would be a virtual halt in development. However, projects that already were approved could go forward using the old rules, which has accounted for nearly all construction since then.
Supporters of wind energy, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, have repeatedly tried and failed to pass rules that are more wind-friendly and warned that investment might soon shift to other states. The current proposal is Senate Bill 188, sponsored by Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, whose district includes most of the wind farms. The bill would allow construction of wind turbines within about 600 feet of property lines, which is down from about 1,300 feet under the 2013 amendment.
Hite is confident the bill can pass the Senate. His problem is in the House, where Majority Leader Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, is one of the most outspoken critics of wind energy.
“If wind farms cannot be developed without borrowing or stealing their neighbors’ nonresidential property in order to satisfy the setback, health and safety requirements, then perhaps they should not be developed at all,” Seitz said in a 2016 letter.
For DeLong and her friends, Hite has become the face of the pro-wind crowd. She notes that there is no wind farm near his home.
“If he lived near them, it would be different,” she said.
Hite had this response: “I would put one in my backyard if I could.”
People will disagree about whether that would be a pleasant view. Meanwhile, the opposite view, from the top of the turbine, is breathtaking.
Dispatch photographer and videographer Doral Chenoweth III contributed to this story.
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