A six-month GateHouse Media investigation found that wind developers representing some of the world’s biggest energy companies divide communities and disrupt the lives of residents forced to live in the shadow of their industrial wind farms.
Reporters interviewed more than 70 families living near three dozen current or proposed wind farms. They also spoke to 10 state and local lawmakers, read hundreds of pages of public-service-commission records about wind projects, reviewed court filings in seven wind-related lawsuits and inspected lease agreements from at least eight wind farms.
GateHouse Media also identified through public documents and media reports an additional 400 families living near industrial wind turbines that have publicly complained about shadow flicker, noise, health problems and/or misleading statements by wind companies in an effort to solicit land agreements.
The investigation found that companies convince landowners to sign away their property rights for generations based on the promise of potential profits and the minimization of potential problems associated with wind turbines.
Those problems include shadow flicker, loud noises and low-frequency vibrations that have driven dozens of families from their homes. Many of them claim to have suffered serious health issues from the turbines before departing. Some say they’ll never be the same.
The wind industry has known about these issues for years – many of its contracts contain clauses acknowledging these effects – but it denies turbines affect human health, even as complaints mount nationwide.
Landowners often overlook potential problems until it’s too late. Many who sign contracts can’t terminate the agreements, even if they later beg for relief from what they deem intolerable living conditions. Some covenants bar people from suing or even publicly criticizing the projects.
Those who don’t sign agreements can face the same impact of living near wind turbines erected on neighboring properties. But they receive no compensation for the shadow flicker, noises and vibrations.
Many of these residents have become vocal opponents of the industry. Dozens of them, including the Shineldeckers, have sued the wind companies for destroying their quality of life.
Wind developers have settled more than a half-dozen such cases nationwide, even while admitting no wrongdoing. Among the companies to settle is Michigan-based Consumers Energy, which owns Lake Winds Energy Park. The Shineldeckers were among several neighbors who sued the company.
Consumers Energy spokesman Terry DeDoes declined repeated requests to answer questions for this story. The company previously denied the Shineldeckers’ claims in court filings.
Proposed wind projects also have fractured rural communities across America, pitting neighbor against neighbor in fights over property rights and money.
Many worry about the impact these turbines will have on their homes – some families interviewed have moved out of their houses after wind farms started operating; others have stayed but suffer from shadow flicker, noises and vibrations.
Elected officials tasked with voting on these developments have, in many cases, signed their own contracts with the wind companies, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.
Among the investigation’s findings:
- Despite a growing chorus of complaints, the wind industry has expanded largely unopposed. Ten years ago, less than 300 industrial wind farms dotted the U.S. landscape. Today, more than 1,000 exist. Much of the growth has been funded by American taxpayers. Billions of dollars in state and federal incentives have made wind farms so profitable that companies are racing to develop them before the handouts disappear.
- Industrial wind turbines generate countless complaints nationwide about sleep disturbances, migraines, nausea, ear pressure, blurred vision, tinnitus and heart palpitations. Rampant reports about such effects from the Shirley Wind Farm in Brown County, Wisconsin, prompted the local Board of Health to declare the turbines a human health hazard.
- Wind industry officials have denounced people who complain about these symptoms, calling them misinformed or “anti-wind.” Some wind companies offer money or other concessions to frequent complainers, often in exchange for silence and a waiver for turbine-related claims. “I call it a shut-up clause,” said Jim Miller of South Dakota, who refused to sign such an agreement with Florida-based NextEra.
- Wind developers have used what some landowners describe as misleading tactics to get their contracts signed. Attorneys asked to review several such contracts called them one-sided, giving wind companies sweeping control over people’s property with few rights for the landowner.
- Wind farms have divided communities across America. Contracted landowners eyeing profits spar with neighbors opposing turbines near their backyards. Lifelong friendships can end. Families sometimes fray. Hopkinton, New York, resident Janice Pease said she stopped talking to relatives who support a proposed wind farm in their town. Pease adamantly opposes it.
Wind industry denies claims
GateHouse Media reached out to seven wind energy companies, including some of the nation’s largest, and two nonprofit groups that support the wind industry. Those representatives denied almost all of the investigation’s findings.
Every wind industry official interviewed said that relatively few people complain about wind turbines compared to the thousands of Americans living peacefully among the structures.
“We have 1,300 turbines in operation across the United States,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Tammie McGee. Except for one wind farm in Wisconsin, “we don’t see these types of complaints at our other turbines.”
Many of the people who do complain, several representatives said, are well-known among industry insiders and comprise a small but vocal group of anti-wind activists.
“There are a good number of people who seem to pop up in different states and fight any wind project they can find,” said Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, a nonprofit [?] group that supports the renewable energy industry.
Some wind representatives questioned why GateHouse Media would write this story, citing study after study finding no evidence that wind turbines cause health problems.
When asked about the studies that do establish a link, those same wind officials disputed the validity of those papers and the credentials of the researchers.
People might be annoyed by wind turbines, several wind representatives said. But they’re not getting sick from them.
“We do recognize that they can be bothersome to people, and our companies try to do things to minimize that both pre- and post-construction,” said Mike Speerschneider, senior director of permitting policy and environmental affairs for the American Wind Energy Association in Washington DC. “But is it making people sick? Is it having physiological and medical impacts? No.”
Rather than divide communities, they said their projects improve the lives of all residents. Some towns hold festivals commemorating their wind farms. Enyo Renewable Energy Principal Christine Mikell mentioned the Wind Fest in Spanish Fork, Utah, which hosts a nine-turbine wind farm.
“We have hundreds of landowners who are pleased to have us come to their communities,” said Bryan Garner of Florida-based NextEnergy Resources, the biggest wind energy producer in America with more than 100 wind farms.
Wind representatives all declined to discuss specific contracts, saying they are private agreements between the companies and the landowners. In general, though, most officials called them relatively standard lease agreements.
Garner said NextEra even pays landowners the cost of hiring private attorneys to review the contracts.
Wind company representatives also said they follow all local, state and federal rules regarding wind farm development. They said they conduct extensive sound and environmental testing. And they said they reach out early and often to community members.
“We make an effort to be available to answer questions, to address concerns in a variety of forms, over the years-long process of development,” said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, one of the world’s largest wind farm operators.
To be sure, wind farms harness a clean and renewable energy source that lessens the country’s dependence on fossil fuel and foreign oil.
Improved technology has made today’s turbines more efficient and thus cheaper to run, lowering energy costs for everyone.
Communities can also benefit financially from wind farms. The construction of these multi-million-dollar projects employs hundreds of temporary workers and adds new, taxable revenue to local and state coffers.
Some communities get fixed, annual payments instead of tax revenues. Barber County, Kansas, for example, earns $500,000 a year in such payments from the Flat Ridge Wind Project. It also gets $5,000 for every megawatt of electricity the project produces.
Landowners, too, can make a lot of money, receiving as much as $14,000 annually for every turbine they host. Perry Burchill of Luverne, North Dakota, was able to retire from farming two years after the Ashtabula Wind Energy Center erected 13 turbines on his land.
Burchill said the turbines don’t bother him.
His neighbor, Mark Askerooth, also hosts a turbine but says he notices the noise, and it bothers him.
“The wind farm is wonderful as far as the local economy goes,” Askerooth said. “But if I’d have known at the time what I know now, I don’t think I would have done it. They are not telling the truth when they say the sound doesn’t affect you. They intimated when we signed the agreement that we wouldn’t notice the noise. But we definitely notice it.”
A booming industry
Wind energy development has soared in the past decade. Industrial turbines that once occupied mainly barren landscapes like California’s Mojave Desert now stretch from the western plains to the rolling hills of New England.
The majority straddle the Midwest, where average wind speeds clock higher and stronger inside a column snaking from the Texas panhandle north to the Dakotas.
Residents accustomed to unimpeded vistas of prairie grass and farmland now see massive turbines churning in the breeze.
“When we turn to the west now, we’re looking right at a forest of machines,” said Geoffrey Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma.
The Osage Nation has fought to block wind development on its ancestral lands, but its efforts failed to prevent construction of an 84-turbine project that started operations in 2015.
The tribe believes the turbines stand atop ancient burial grounds. They also say the structures violate their religious teachings, which hold the horizon as a sacred meeting place of heaven and earth.
They still worship the horizon in special, sunrise ceremonies. The turbines have ruined those gatherings, they said.
“It’s really a fight between those who want to take advantage of the money and those who believe they’re an eyesore and just interfere with a way of life,” Standing Bear said. “It’s not like Greenpeace versus the others. We’re Native Americans; we consider ourselves environmentalists as well.”
Ten years ago, just 300 wind farms comprising 15,000 turbines dotted the country, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Today, those numbers have swelled to more than 1,000 wind farms in 41 states representing over 53,000 turbines, EIA data show.
Osage Wind is one of more than 40 industrial wind farms in Oklahoma, which ranks third in the nation for wind energy production.
Only the Southeast, with its unfavorable wind conditions and lack of renewable energy targets, remains relatively free of industrial wind farms.
That’s starting to change. Newer, taller turbines can harness wind where old technology couldn’t. The first large-scale project in North Carolina went live last year – 104 turbines towering 500 feet now produce energy for the online retailer Amazon.
Developments like these catapulted wind energy’s contribution to the nation’s electrical grid. In 2007, wind provided less than 1 percent to the grid. In 2016, it rose to 5.6 percent. It’s estimated to reach 10 percent by the end of the decade.
Incentives and mandates
Two factors fueled the boom.
First, states began mandating electricity from green sources. Renewable Portfolio Standards require utilities to either purchase or produce anywhere from 2 to 55 percent of their power from renewable energy.
Twenty-nine states now have mandatory standards; eight others have voluntary targets. The majority passed after 2000.
Second, the federal government started incentivizing wind energy development with the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit in 1992.
Other programs followed, including the Investment Tax Credit, 1705 Energy Loan Guarantee, and Section 1603 Grants, all of which either started or expanded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Wind companies will have benefited from an estimated $32 billion in Production Tax Credits alone between 2008, when the industry exploded, and 2020 when the program is phased out, according to data from the U.S. Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
Companies have received an additional $13 billion in Section 1603 payments since 2009, U.S. Treasury data show.
Although wind energy remains relatively new, its major developers are not. Established fuel titans like NextEra, Iberdrola, BP and Duke Energy are among the industry’s biggest players.
By bundling federal giveaways with state and local subsidies, companies can slash wind farm development costs by more than half.
Taxpayers funded nearly two-thirds of Caithness Energy’s Shepherds Flat Wind Farm. It has 338 turbines across 32,100 acres in northern Oregon.
The company received more than $1.2 billion in state and federal incentives for the $1.9 billion project, one of the largest in the nation.
Shepherds Flat was flagged in a memo to then-President Barack Obama by his advisors as an example of developers abusing the subsidies by “double dipping.”
The 2010 memo also noted the connection between tax incentives and wind development: Each time wind tax credits expired, industry investment slowed, only to resume upon their renewal.
The Production Tax Credit program will expire again – and potentially forever – in 2020. But it’s unlikely to slow the boom this time. Cheaper wind technology and increased demand for renewables will continue to drive the sector, said AWEA spokesman Evan Vaughn.
Forced to move
As the wind industry continues to expand, so do its critics.
Hundreds of residents nationwide have claimed industrial wind turbines make them sick. Several families say the structures have forced them from their homes.
Ed and Sue Hobart sold their retirement home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, after Notus Clean Energy erected a turbine near their property. They say it triggered nausea, dizziness, migraines and anxiety.
Dozens of other Falmouth residents reported similar symptoms to the town Board of Health.
“People don’t give up their homes for no reason,” Ed Hobart said, responding to claims the symptoms were all in his head. “It had financial and emotional and health impacts on me and my wife that we will never be fully recovered from.”
Jeff and Sandra Wolfe got sick after turbines from the Golden West Wind Energy Center started spinning near their property in Calhan, Colorado, the couple said.
The Wolfes moved 300 miles away to escape the tinnitus, headaches, anxiety and sleep disturbances they developed, said Sandra Wolfe. Three other families in the same wind farm told GateHouse Media they left their homes for similar reasons.
“There is no reason to hate them unless they make you sick,” Sandra Wolfe said of the 145 turbines in the project, most of which she could see from her house. “And they made us sick.”
Three families also left their homes in the Shirley Wind farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, after complaining about numerous health issues and sleep problems they blamed on the eight-turbine project.
“We had to choose between our home and our health,” said Susan Ashley, the matriarch of one of those families. “We chose our health.”
Dozens of other residents also complained about Shirley Wind, so much so that the local board of health declared it a human health hazard in 2014.
“There is no question there are negative effects,” said Jay Tibbetts, a physician and member of the Brown County Board of Health. “Even if you don’t perceive any symptoms, it doesn’t mean you’re not affected. There are subtle changes that can take place in your body.”
Duke Energy, which owns Shirley Wind, disputes its turbines constitute a human health hazard.
“These are very common symptoms,” said Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee. “They could be caused by anything.”
Unlike the wooden windmills of Holland, industrial turbines are sleek structures that can reach heights of a 50-story skyscraper. A single blade can surpass the wingspan of a Boeing 747.
Some turbines can generate a noise likened to the engine of a jet airplane that never lands, a whooshing roar or a rhythmic “whomp, whomp, whomp.”
The air-pressure change caused when their spinning blades pass their pedestals has been linked to migraines and sleep disturbances. In bats that fly too close, the effect can fatally burst the capillaries in their delicate lungs, killing them.
When the sun passes behind those blades, it creates a strobe-like phenomenon called shadow flicker that can disorient and nauseate those forced to live with it.
Shadow flicker forced Rod and Sandy Kok out of their ranch-style home in rural Randolph, Wisconsin.
The Koks had signed a lease agreement with NextEra subsidiary FPL Energy in 2004. In exchange for hosting an industrial wind turbine in their backyard, the retired couple would receive annual payments of $5,000.
FPL representatives said they would “barely notice” the massive structure, the Koks recalled. They said Wisconsin-based WE Energies made the same claim after it purchased the wind development and land contracts from FPL in 2007.
But when the Glacier Hills Wind Park started operating in 2011, Sandy Kok said she developed nausea, headaches and vertigo from the persistent shadow flicker infiltrating nearly every room in the house.
The family logged 330 hours of the strobe-like effect the first year alone, according to a complaint filed with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
The flicker came not only from the turbine in their yard but from four others nearby. Sandy said she spent hours each day hiding in the basement until the sun shifted or the clouds came.
After the Koks discovered they couldn’t terminate the agreement, they begged WE Energies for relief.
The company tried several methods to mitigate the shadow flicker, but none of them worked to the couple’s satisfaction, according to a February 2013 Wisconsin Public Service Commission document.
WE Energies installed room-darkening shades on the family’s windows, but the flicker peeped through the cracks. The company also halted one of its turbines during the offending hours, but nearby turbines continued to spin and cast shadows.
WE Energies refused to stop the other turbines, estimating it would lose up to $76,000 annually in profits, the state record shows.
So the flicker continued. And Sandy’s symptoms worsened.
WE Energies eventually purchased the Kok’s home in November 2013 so the couple could move away. The Koks said they got a fair price, but they never wanted to leave in the first place. They raised their children there. They planted every tree in the yard.
“It’s hard to talk about it,” Sandy said. “We try not to think about it anymore. But sometimes you go to these dark places. It still affects you.”
WE Energies spokeswoman Cathy Schulze said the company worked closely with the community and the state Public Service Commission on project development and turbine placement.
“We continue our commitment to being good neighbors, and work with any impacted homeowners one-on-one to mitigate concerns related to our operations,” Schulze said in an email.
Low-frequency sound waves from the Lake Winds Energy Park forced Cary and Karen Shineldecker to leave their home in Mason County, Michigan, the couple said.
The Shineldeckers had opposed Lake Winds prior to its construction; they worried about the effects its 56 turbines would have on nearby families, including their own.
Cary spoke at county meetings and urged local officials to pass tighter wind regulations, ones that would keep turbines away from his home.
His activism earned the family enemies in the community, especially among neighbors who signed up for the turbines, the couple said. They lost friends over the issue and believe someone poisoned their dogs in retaliation.
Despite Cary’s efforts, Consumers Energy erected four turbines within a half-mile of the family’s two-story farmhouse – the closest loomed less than 1,200 feet away.
The turbines began operating on Thanksgiving Day 2012, and the Shineldeckers immediately noticed problems, they said.
At first it was the noise – loud whistling and whooshing sounds. But soon they could feel thumping vibrations that resonated through the walls of their home like bass-heavy music from a distant, passing car.
This feeling, they said, bothered them during the day and kept them awake at night. They developed headaches, ear aches and pressure behind their eyes.
The couple described it as Chinese water torture – bearable in the moment but insufferable over time.
“You go months and months and months without sleep, and pretty soon, you’re not even the person you recognize,” Cary said. “I literally broke down and cried in front of people, and I’m not proud to say that.”
Karen, a middle-school science teacher started grinding her teeth at night; she had to wear bite splints. Cary, an engineer, started losing concentration during the day; he was demoted at his job.
They took sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. They moved their bedroom into the basement to hide from the effects, but they still couldn’t escape.
The Shineldeckers didn’t suffer alone. Consumers Energy received 128 complaints about its wind farm in the first year of operation, according to Mason County records.
After about two years living with the turbines, the Shineldeckers moved out. They stayed with a family friend until they could build a new house four miles away.
Consumers Energy spokesman Terry DeDoes repeatedly declined to answer questions for this story but emailed a written statement that touted the company’s renewable energy projects and community engagement.
“It was emotionally devastating to be forced out of your house,” Cary said. “We moved to that house when our oldest son was 5 years old. It was a really nice place to live and raise a family.”
Health impact debate
Even as wind farm inhabitants nationwide blame industrial turbines on a cascade of health problems, experts remain split on the veracity of their complaints.
Numerous researchers claim to have established a link between wind turbines and symptoms such as migraines, earaches, tinnitus, eye pressure, dizziness, nausea and sleeplessness; many other researchers conclude no such evidence exists.
“I wish it was something we could have gotten used to,” said Illinois resident Ted Hartke, who moved out of his home in the California Ridge Wind Farm. “You sit in bed and pray to God you can get used to the noise. But it got worse.”
But even as complaints mount across the nation, the wind industry steadfastly denies turbines impact human health.
“We are aware of some of the cases where individuals come to believe that wind turbines are the cause of their health concerns, and we feel great sympathy for anyone who is suffering from illness of any kind,” said Dahvi Wilson of Apex Clean Energy, which owns several wind farms nationwide.
But, Wilson said, science doesn’t support their claims. And until it does, the company will continue to build wind farms based on current best practices.
The wind industry frequently cites a 2014 Health Canada study that found no direct association between health problems and wind turbines. The study involved more than 1,200 residents in 18 wind farms.
But the same study also found wind turbines “highly annoy” about one in 10 people, especially those living closest to the structures and those exposed to turbine noises exceeding 35 decibels.
That annoyance is “statistically related” to reports of migraines, tinnitus, dizziness and high blood pressure.
“Although Health Canada has no way of knowing whether these conditions may have either pre-dated, and/or are possibly exacerbated by, exposure to wind turbines,” researchers said, “the findings support a potential link between long term high annoyance and health.”
Experts on the other side of the debate also cite the Health Canada study, saying it proves turbines sicken people – even if indirectly, because of their annoyance factor.
But they criticize the study’s use of only an A-weighted sound meter, which doesn’t measure the low frequencies blamed for some of the worst health problems.
To measure those frequencies, you need a C-weighted scale, said Jerry Punch, an audiologist and professor emeritus at Michigan State University who also has researched the issue.
“The A-weighting filter is used by all wind companies and everybody who studies wind turbine noise,” Punch said, “and it filters out the sounds that are really the most problematic.”
Researchers using low-frequency meters have found a link between wind turbines and “sensations of uneasiness and personal disturbance,” as well as “extreme pressure” and “headache or nausea or dizziness.”
One of the first to do this was Neil Kelley, a now-retired scientist from the National Wind Technology Center in Denver. The U.S. Department of Energy and NASA hired Kelley three decades ago to investigate complaints about their wind turbine near Boone, North Carolina.
Kelley and his colleagues determined after extensive testing that “the annoyance was real and not imagined,” the result of acoustic impulses.
Kelley did not return calls for comment.
Like motion sickness
These acoustic impulses – or low-frequency sound waves – stimulate parts of the inner ear responsible for balance, motion and spatial orientation and that they provoke symptoms similar to motion sickness, some researchers say.
“If you’re sitting still and something is causing the same fluids to move, your brain doesn’t know that it’s a false signal,” said Rick James, an acoustical engineer who has written papers on the subject. “But you open your eyes and say, ‘I’m sitting still, but I feel like I’m moving.’”
The Minnesota Department of Health noted the phenomenon in 2009 paper. It found low-frequency waves cause more problems inside a house than outside because, rather than block the pulsations, the walls amplify them.
Darlene Mueller wept as she described how turbines in the Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Center in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, sickened her inside her home.
“I would pace the house like a lion in a cage,” she said. “I would leave the house at 2 or 3 in the morning and go to Walmart just to escape the noise. You go days and days and days without sleep, and it’s just madness.”
Other experts dispute the low-frequency claim. The Department of Energy, which hired Kelley for its North Carolina study, now says on its website that wind turbine sounds – including low-frequency and infrasound – have no direct human health impact.
Humans are biologically unique individuals, said physician Robert McCunney, an MIT researcher who has researched the issue. Perhaps some people suffer from noise sensitivity, he said, but that doesn’t mean wind turbines pose a human health hazard the way asbestos or lead does.
“Not to dismiss their complaints, because I believe these people are sincere,” McCunney said, “but there are other things that can cause these symptoms.”
Despite the lack of scientific consensus, acoustical engineer Paul Schomer said he believes wind turbines genuinely cause human suffering.
He also thinks wind companies truly believe their turbines are safe.
“I think there are enough people that work for the industry that have put out papers and stuff that the waters are muddy,” said Schomer, who has conducted work both for the wind industry and its opponents.
Instead of waiting for science to settle the debate – which Schomer said may never happen – the engineer thinks it’s time for a compromise.
Wind companies should admit turbine noise hurts some people and agree to greater setbacks and lower decibel limits, Schomer said. And wind farm opponents should accept reasonable sound limits and buffer distances instead of trying to outright ban turbines.
Dragged through the mud
But some wind farm residents who spoke out about their problems said the industry belittles them. It dismisses their complaints as unfounded or labels them troublemakers, multiple people said.
It has silenced many of their neighbors whom they said suffer the same symptoms but fear the consequences of speaking out.
Falmouth, Massachusetts, resident Todd Drummey bemoaned the problem in 2012 at a public meeting about the town’s controversial wind turbines.
“I have spoken to several people who have watched the events of the last two years,” Drummey told the board at the time, “and simply concluded no point in subjecting themselves to this type of punishment.”
After Cary Shineldecker went public about his experience in Michigan’s Lake Winds Energy Park, an energy company executive singled him out at a meeting several states away.
Mike Blazer of Chicago-based Invenergy claimed to know Shineldecker’s medical history. He told a crowd in Clear Lake, South Dakota, that Shineldecker’s health woes stemmed from alcohol use, obstructive sleep apnea and an irregular heartbeat – not wind turbines.
Blazer shared the information at a December 2016 city meeting about his company’s proposed wind farm. He did it to quell fears about wind turbines and to provide “an example of the impact of the type of misinformation that is spread by wind opponents,” Blazer said in an email.
Shineldecker said he was stunned to learn about the incident from an attorney who attended the meeting. He said he has neither sleep apnea nor alcohol problems and never received a diagnosis for those problems.
“All I ever had to go on was my integrity and honesty and work ethic,” Shineldecker said, “and then to be belittled and treated like some whack-job psycho liar is kind of unbelievable.”
Iowa wind farm resident Terry McGovern said he faced disparagement by Apex Clean Energy.
The Virginia-based company accused McGovern of holding “a personal anti-wind agenda” and claimed he would spread misinformation and generate unfounded fear of wind energy ahead of a public presentation he gave.
Apex made the claims in a July 2017 letter it sent to landowners discouraging them from attending the presentation, held near the site of its proposed Upland Prairie Wind farm in northwest Iowa.
McGovern denies holding an anti-wind agenda but is publicly critical of the industry and its business practices. His Iowa Wind Action Group calls for greater setbacks for industrial turbines to protect human health.
“Instead of focusing on the issues, they try to discredit the person,” McGovern said. “That way, they can avoid talking about the facts.”
Apex sent the letter to clear up confusion about the presentation, not to disparage McGovern, company spokeswoman Dahvi Wilson said.
“It was not our intent to attack the speaker, as it appears he has suggested,” Wilson said, “but to explain that the presenter was unaffiliated with Apex and provide project participants with some information about his credentials, which we believe to be accurate.”
A Minnesota lawmaker recently criticized the industry for dismissing wind farm residents’ concerns, saying it hurts its own credibility.
“What’s frustrating to me is when we take the taxpayer money and use it for these projects and then turn around to the taxpayer and completely blow off their concerns,” said Republican state Sen. Andrew Mathews at an October legislative hearing on wind turbine siting.
To hear the industry say “it’s all bias and not based on facts or science and it’s fear and annoyance and rumors, I have tough time then trying to decide how much to consider is credible” from these companies.
Mathews wants the industry to work on solutions to these problems instead of denying they exist. He said it’s time the state and its regulatory agencies do more to protect residents from harm.
Some landowners solicited by wind farm developers claim the companies used misleading statements in their bids to secure land rights for the projects.
Among the statements these landowners cited: That they should sign agreements because their neighbors already did; that the wind turbines would be quiet and unobtrusive; that they could exit the agreement at any time. Several of those who signed said they now regret doing so.
Large-scale wind farms need thousands of acres per project. Because it’s not feasible to purchase the property, companies must seek leases with landowners.
Gary Steinich signed a lease agreement with FPL Energy in 2004 to host two turbines in exchange for annual payments of $10,400.
Representatives “wined and dined” Steinich and told him he could end the contract at any time, he said. They also promised not to disturb his 160 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. The turbines would go on the edge of his property, they told him, not in the fields.
But before it built the wind farm, FPL sold the project and its land agreements to WE Energies. The Wisconsin-based utility altered the original plan. It now called for larger turbines in different locations on the existing properties, all of which the agreements allowed.
WE Energies spokeswoman Cathy Schulze said the company did alter the wind project plans after purchasing the development. But she said it worked closely with the community and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to meet their standards.
Steinich tried to terminate his contract after learning the turbines would stand in the middle of his crops, but he said WE Energies refused to release him. He formed a group and hired a lawyer to fight the project, but he couldn’t stop it.
“You lose complete control of your land,” Steinich said. “They decide everything.”
He ultimately sold his acreage and stopped farming.
Steinich’s contract contains a common clause rendering moot any verbal promises. It doesn’t matter what developers told him if it’s not in the agreement.
“This Agreement and the attached Exhibits shall constitute the entire agreement between the Parties and supersedes all other prior writings and understandings,” Steinich’s contract states.
Other agreements contain similar language, as Wisconsin farmer Allen Hass learned after contracting to host two turbines in the Blue Sky Green Field Wind Energy Project – a decision he now regrets.
“Everything they tell you is a lie unless it’s documented in writing,” Hass said.
Both men also said wind company representatives falsely claimed their neighbors had signed lease agreements and that the wind projects were coming no matter what. They might as well profit, too.
They said they later learned their neighbors hadn’t signed up – at least not at that point. Steinich said he discovered he was the first to sign.
FPL Energy is a subsidiary of NextEra, whose spokesman Bryan Garner declined to comment on Steinich’s contract negotiations because he has no direct knowledge of what happened. In general, though, he said the company is truthful to landowners.
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At least two Wyoming landowners said they also experienced “aggressive” tactics from wind farm developers.
One of those landowners, former state legislator Diemer True, said representatives of Utah-based Wastach Wind approached him in 2009 to lease his land for the Pioneer Wind Park.
After True refused, he said, the group continued to pressure him.
“They assured me that because they had, or would have, our neighbors’ land leased that I would experience the associated impacts. As a result, I might as well enjoy the income which would come with leasing to them,” True wrote as part of a complaint about Wasatch’s practices sent to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
True checked with several of his neighbors, and none had signed a lease with the company, he said in the complaint.
The 2009 SEC complaint came from a citizens’ group to which True belonged called the Northern Laramie Range Alliance. It alleged Wasatch used “aggressive sales practices” to solicit development rights worth more than its payment to landowners – akin to a speculative investment and no different from a securities offer.
The alliance also claimed Wasatch, now called Enyo Renewable Energy, failed to disclose the risks associated with the project’s development.
“In effect, you’re making an in-kind investment in their business,” said Kenneth Lay, alliance member and a former SEC enforcement lawyer. “But you don’t make anything unless their development is successful.”
It’s unknown if the SEC took action on the complaint.
Enyo Principal Christine Mikell declined to comment on the alliance’s claims, because she wasn’t involved in the land negotiations nor was she heading the company at the time. She said Pioneer Wind Park’s participating landowners are happy with their contracts.
Lay said he still believes the contracts require serious scrutiny.
Who the contracts favor
The agreements work in the favor of companies in almost every sense, according to several attorneys who have reviewed these types of documents.
Contracts with wind developers can last decades, sometimes with no exit clause for the landowner but language allowing the company to terminate at any time.
Most of the agreements obtained by GateHouse Media allow the company broad access to the property while restricting the landowner’s use of the terrain. Some limit the landowner’s ability to landscape or erect new structures.
Many contracts also demand the landowner’s support of the project in both word and deed.
A lease with Consumer’s Energy in Michigan, for example, bans landowners from taking “any action to in any manner attempt to wholly or partially prevent, or otherwise to in any manner oppose,” the project even if years later the landowner comes to despise living among the turbines.
Some contracts ban landowners from filing lawsuits against the company, making formal complaints against it before a regulatory agency or lobbying against its future plans to expand the wind farm.
Many agreements also require landowners accept the very effects wind companies claim pose no risk: noises, air-pressure changes, shadow flicker and television and radio interference.
Several agreements contain clauses that let developers renew the terms, sometimes with the landowner’s further consent and sometimes without. An Atlantic Wind lease obtained by GateHouse Media shows the company can extend its contract by 26 years without further approval from the landowner.
“These are the most atrocious contracts I’ve ever read in my life,” said Roger McEowen, a professor of agricultural law and taxation at Washburn.
Contracts for land rights vary but all typically contain three components – an exploration phase allowing developers property access to determine project feasibility; a construction and operational phase allowing them to install and operate equipment on the property; and a decommissioning phase covering equipment disassembly and land restoration.
Together these phases’ terms can last decades.
Landowners receive different payments depending on the contract phase and the type of equipment – if any – they host. They can range from a one-time sum of less than $100 to annual installments of tens of thousands of dollars.
Some agreements obtained by GateHouse Media prohibit landowners from making any public statement against the company or the project.
Such was the case with an agreement NextEra offered Jim and Mary Ann Miller after the North Dakota couple complained about relentless shadow flicker from the company’s Ashtabula Wind Energy Center.
The flicker was so bad, Jim Miller said, it forced the couple to build a windowless addition to their house.
NextEra agreed to pay them a lump sum of $15,000 if they signed the waiver.
One of its provisions: “The Parties acknowledge and agree that this prohibition extends to statements, written or verbal, made to anyone, including but not limited to, the news media, investors, potential investors, any board of directors or advisory board or directors, industry analysts, competitors, strategic partners, vendors, employees (past and present) and clients,” according to an agreement by Ashtabula Wind II.
The Millers refused to sign.
“I call it a shut-up clause,” Jim Miller said.
Such clauses can appear not just in land contracts, but in waivers and so-called “good neighbor agreements.” Companies make agreements with property owners who didn’t sign land deals but live close enough to the project to experience its effects.
In exchange for money, the landowners release the company from liability for these issues and sometimes forfeit their right to complain about it.
Jericho Rise Wind Farm offered Nate Rogers of Chateaugay, New York, $1,000 upfront and an additional $1,000 annually to accept noise, shadow flicker, air turbulence, weather hazards and radio and television interference from the turbines near his land, according to a document Rogers shared with GateHouse Media.
The contract does not forbid landowners from complaining about the effects, but it removes their right to seek any legal claim against the company.
Rogers refused to sign, but he said he still lives with the effects of the nearby structures.
His brother’s family lives up the road, and Rogers said it’s even worse for them. Three giant turbines sit just beyond their property line – obstructing the view, interfering with their television reception, and keeping them up at night with loud noises and blinking lights.
“It makes a metal-on-metal grinding noise,” said Denise Rogers. “I’ve thought about moving. This is not the house we intended it to be.”
Denise and her husband, George, bought the same decibel meter the company uses to measure sound. They said they routinely catch the turbines exceeding the county’s 50-decibel limit and file complaints, but the problems continue.
It’s a never-ending battle, they said.
‘Property value decline’
“Many landowners feel compelled to sign a gag agreement to avoid paying attorney fees to battle the wind farm companies,” McEowen said. “One part of what you’re getting compensation for is the loss in value for your property.”
Wind industry officials deny projects reduce property values. The American Wind Energy Association lists one dozen studies on its website showing no effect on home sales or values.
But other studies have found the opposite, including several conducted by Chicago-based certified residential appraiser Michael McCann.
McCann appraised Cary and Karen Shineldecker’s property for $260,000 when they put it on the market in 2011, shortly before Consumers Energy erected several large turbines near their home. The couple wanted to sell before the wind farm became operational.
The Shineldeckers got no offers for nearly four years.
In early 2015, the family accepted an offer on the house for $139,000 and sold the surrounding acreage separately for $40,000 – a total 30 percent loss on the original asking price.
“We were devastated,” Karen said.
The Shineldeckers weren’t alone. Several neighbors also complained about property devaluation and health problems from the Lake Winds Energy Park. Together, they sued Consumers Energy in March 2013.
The company denied the claims but ultimately settled with the residents in October 2014 for an undisclosed sum.
Dan Williams of Ione, Oregon, also lost value on his property after construction of the Willow Creek Wind Farm, according to real-estate appraiser Richard Barnett.
In court documents related to Williams’ lawsuit against the wind farm, Barnett estimated the property’s value at $59,000 without the turbines and $12,400 with the turbines – a nearly fivefold reduction.
Invenergy, which owns Willow Creek, denied Williams’ allegations. The lawsuit settled in January 2016 for an undisclosed sum.
“If you were looking at two identical houses and one had wind turbine and one didn’t, which would you pick?” said Bradley Tupi, a Pittsburg attorney who has litigated several wind-related suits.
“There is an obvious impact on property value,” he said.
Splitting families, communities
Wind farms bring not only the promise of jobs and money to rural communities across America, but sometimes deep divisions that can rip apart families, friendships and the fabric of once tight-knit towns.
Proposed wind projects have fractured rural communities across the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor in fights over property rights, money and the future of their homes.
Residents erupted in a shouting match at a town meeting in Ellington Township, Michigan, in December in 2016. One of them had signed a lease with the wind company; the other didn’t want the project.
In nearby Almer Township, resident Norman Stephens said somebody destroyed his lawn with Roundup after he spoke out against a proposed wind farm.
Jim and Mary Ann Miller lost friends by opposing the project near their home in Luverne, North Dakota. They said they were taunted at town meetings and shunned by neighbors.
Industry company representatives disputed these projects create community divisions, although they acknowledged some developments spur a period of debate as residents seek information and grapple with impending change.
“These wind farms obviously are creating a big change in these communities,” said Evan Vaughn of the American Wind Energy Association, the trade and lobbying arm of the industry. “But it’s a change for the better.”
Split in New York
The neighboring towns of Hopkinton and Parishville in northern New York currently face widespread division over a proposed wind farm that would erect as many as 40 industrial turbines throughout its rural pastures.
A group of residents called Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation formed to oppose the project. Its members show up at town meetings and pass out yard signs saying “No industrial wind turbines” that now dot lawns across the county.
Other lawns belong to families supporting the development and feature “Yes wind power” signs along the sides of the roads. A pro-wind group called North County for a Brighter Future also formed. It paid for an ad in the local newspaper blaming opponents for using scare tactics.
The controversy flares up at town meetings and in letters to the editor in the local newspaper. It has ended friendships and split families. Project opponent Janice Pease said she no longer speaks to her grandfather, a World War II veteran and major landowner who signed a lease to place two turbines on his land.
“It has divided the community, even families,” said Hopkinton Supervisor Sue Wood. “The majority doesn’t want the wind turbines, but the people who signed leases really want it.”
The project, called North Ridge Wind Farm, would pump $750,000 annually into local coffers – divided among the county, two towns and the school district. It also would pay participating property owners a combined $500,000 annually for use of their land.
Avangrid Renewables, a U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, is developing the wind farm.
“These investments are, of course, going to represent some amount of change in the community, and we want to do the best that we can to make sure the community is a partner in bringing that change along responsibly and appropriately,” Copleman said. “I think from there people will wrestle with various questions about what it means to develop a wind farm in a community. It’s our job to do the best we can to answer those questions.”
Accusations of secrecy
Many blame the wind companies for fostering the division, claiming developers enter communities in secret to sign up landowners years before publicly announcing the project.
By the time the general public learns about it, developers already have the easements they need from landowners and the assurances they seek from elected officials to develop their wind farms, several residents said.
Many said they felt blindsided and angry.
“To this date, in all of these projects, there are many people still unaware that these giants are coming to their communities,” said Tina Graziano of Villenova, New York, where two companies want to build wind farms.
Graziano made the comments at a Chautauqua County Legislature meeting in January, along with several other people upset about the community division, which many blamed on the wind companies’ tactics.
“These wind companies slide, snowball the uneducated board members, keep the notifications at a minimum to deter community opposition,” said Graziano said at the meeting. “The community is now split.”
Developers aren’t being secretive; they’re being cautious, said AWEA’s Mike Speerschneider. It can take years to determine a project’s feasibility due to easements, permitting, environmental studies and other factors. They don’t want to announce anything until they’re sure they can proceed.
“A very small percentage of projects become anything,” Speerschneider said, “so it doesn’t make sense to announce it publicly every time you look at a particular piece of property.”
But that secrecy, whatever the reason, can drive communities apart. When Cary Shineldecker went door to door informing residents of the proposed wind farm in Mason County, Michigan, he said people were shocked to learn neighbors had signed agreements.
“We had people break down and cry when they found out that people who had been their lifelong friends, who had babysat each other’s kids for 50 years, and they never even told their neighbors,” Shineldecker said. “They felt so betrayed their friend who lived right next to them had never told them they leased to the company.”
The same thing happened when Portuguese energy giant EDP was developing its 77-megawatt Jericho Rise Wind Farm in Chateaugay, New York, residents there said.
Glenda King knows the heartache firsthand. Although she and her family publicly opposed the project, adjacent neighbors quietly signed a lease agreement with EDP to erect three large turbines on their property.
King was devastated when she found out. One of the 496-foot turbines looms just inches from her property line. It screeches whenever the giant motor house rotates in search of optimum wind conditions, and its red lights blink incessantly, keeping the family up at night, she said.
“There is a huge emotional, psychological and physical effect from these things,” King said. “It’s disgraceful how these companies come into economically deprived area and rip apart families, friends and neighbors.”
- Shadow flicker simulation: »» GO »»
- With data from the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and Google Maps, we’ve mapped wind turbines across the country. See the growth over time and more details with a look inside the numbers: »» GO »»
- This investigation found more than 450 families who have publicly complained about the impacts of living near wind farms. Have a similar experience? Tell your story in your own words: »» GO »»
- Inside the investigation: »» GO »»
- Michigan wind farm cost a family its health, home
- Communities fight wind farms, face pushback
- Conflicts of interest abound in wind farm proposals
- New York community divided over wind farm
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