First came the animosity.
Cary and Karen Shineldecker faced name-calling and middle fingers for opposing an industrial wind development in their rural Mason County, Michigan, community.
Longtime friends who supported the project stopped speaking to them. Someone poisoned their dogs. They felt unwelcome at their church.
Then came the health problems.
The couple suffered anxiety, headaches, ear pressure, tinnitus, heart palpitations and sleep disturbances after Lake Winds Energy began operating its 476-foot-tall turbines around their home.
Then came the financial woes.
The Shineldeckers spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the wind farm and sold their property at a loss to escape it. They now live 4 miles away in a house with a mortgage and memories that haunt them.
“The smart thing to do would have been for us to not fight and just leave,” Cary said, “but I guess it’s not in my nature to do that.”
The Shineldeckers joined the ranks of hundreds of residents from Oregon to Maine who feel burned by the rapidly growing wind industry.
A six-month GateHouse Media investigation found that wind developers representing some of the world’s biggest energy companies have divided some communities and disrupted the lives of some residents forced to live in the shadow of their industrial wind farms.
West Texas wind boom
In West Texas, numerous wind farms have popped up in recent years, with many in communities from Snyder to Floydada embracing the financial opportunities they bring.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office and advocacy groups this past week brokered an agreement with Xcel Energy to build a massive wind farm near the Texas-New Mexico border, including in Hale County, which has already seen major wind turbine developments in recent years.
The Sagamore Wind Project would be the largest wind farm in New Mexico, providing more than 520 megawatts of power once it comes online in 2020, according to The Associated Press.
In Floyd County, construction began last year on 166 turbines, adding to the county’s growing wind power portfolio.
Lindan Morris, Floyd County commissioner for Precinct 2, told the Avalanche-Journal last year that once construction on wind farms has started, sales tax numbers can be expected to increase, benefiting area schools.
“So far, it’s been good for our county and our area,” he said. “I’m hoping it stays that way. It’s going to broaden our tax base. The county has been dependent on oil and natural gas, so we’ll probably have a boost.”
In Scurry County, Amazon in October recently finished construction of its Amazon Wind Farm Texas project, with 110 turbines east of U.S. 84, according to the company.
Bill Lavers, executive director of the Development Corporation of Snyder, told the A-J when the project was announced last year that the development – with its estimated 250 to 300 construction jobs – couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It’s a huge deal for our community with the downturn in oil,” he said. “It’s a great shot in the arm to have this kind of activity and national exposure for things that aren’t always oil-field related.”
Disrupting quality of life?
But in other communities across the country, wind farms have been blamed for disruptions to some peoples’ quality of life.
As part of the GateHouse investigation, 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.
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 the 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 intolerable turbines. Some covenants bar people from suing or even publicly criticizing the projects.
A few contracted landowners declined to talk to reporters, citing fears of retaliation by the companies.
Those who don’t sign agreements can face similar fates. Residents living near turbines erected on their neighbors’ properties can experience the same shadow flicker, noises and vibrations but receive no compensation in return.
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.
Consumers Energy spokesman Terry DeDoes declined repeated requests to answer questions for this story.
Neighbor vs. neighbor
Proposed wind projects also have fractured dozens of rural communities across America, pitting neighbor against neighbor in fights over property rights, money and the future of their homes.
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, fewer 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 a gag order and an agreement to waive their liability for turbine-related problems. “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 call “deceptive” and “aggressive” 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.
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. Representatives from those organizations 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 even write this story, citing study after study finding no evidence that wind turbines cause health problems.
When asked about the many 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, D.C. “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 105 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 yearslong process of development,” said Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, one of the world’s largest wind farm operators.
Benefit to communities
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 multimillion-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, but his neighbor feels duped.
“The wind farm is wonderful as far as the local economy goes,” said Mark Askerooth, who also hosts a turbine in the Ashtabula Wind Energy Center.
“But if I’d have known at the time what I know now, I don’t think I would have done it,” he said.
“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.”