NEW LONDON – Ten years ago, the tiny town of New London took a gamble.
Electricity costs were expected to rise 50 percent during the following decade, and the New London Municipal Utilities board wanted a way to get ahead of the price hike.
So they decided to buy a wind turbine.
“Green power was coming on the scene, and there was more than one board member who felt that way,” said New London Municipal Utilities Foreman Tom Pry.
After a few years of research, grant writing, discussion, and a utility board vote, a 426-foot-tall wind turbine was erected in a field outside of town at the end of 2011. The turbine was supposed to provide 25 percent of the town’s power, but it actually provides a bit more than that. That excess power is occasionally sold to the neighboring town of Danville.
It likely will be another 15 years before the town knows if the gamble paid off. The roughly $4 million project was funded through revenue bonds issued by New London Municipal Utilities, as well as a $100,000 grant that allowed purchase of a five year warranty.
But the rise in electricity rates never materialized, and electric bills in New London have remained static – other than a price bump about the time turbine was built it.
“I’ve heard a few people say wrongfully that we had to raise our rate to get the turbine,” Pry said. “We just hadn’t raised our rates in a long time.”
Now the city is paying off the debt for the wind turbine with money saved from reducing the amount of power purchased from the electrical grid. Pry said the turbine has actually saved the town a small bit of money, but once maintenance costs are figured in, it ends up breaking even. Some months are a little cheaper. Some aren’t.
“It’s been a gamble, but the return we’ve been getting so far, it’s been a good one,” Pry said. “It’s actually done quite well.”
Despite hundreds of lightning strikes – a malady wind turbines must endure – the turbine hasn’t suffered any major problems. It was evaluated every year by the German company that manufactured it while under warrant, and was repaired two years ago under that same warranty. The blade had 13 cracks in the epoxy surface that had to be patched up, and has avoided any direct lightning strikes that would fry the turbine completely.
But that warranty has run out, and if the turbine stops working, the safety net is gone.
“Now that we know what kind of damage can be done over a five-year period, there’s really no sense in jumping into a more accelerated maintenance program,” Pry said.
The turbine is inspected once a year, and is supposed to last at least 20 years. New London was one of the first small communities in the world to get a wind turbine, and it was only the 72nd turbine manufactured by Germany company Vensys.
In other words, the longevity of the turbine is untested.
“There’s nothing saying that it can’t go 35 years,” Pry said. “They haven’t been up that long, so nobody knows for sure. There’s one seven years older than ours.”
Utility board chairman Jerry Wilhelm said there wasn’t much pushback from residents when the turbine project came to a vote. As long as the electric rate doesn’t rise, the source of power doesn’t get much attention.
“When we were going to through it, we didn’t get any response from people in town,” Wilhelm said.
There was only one member of the utility board who voted against the turbine – Wilhelm himself.
Risk vs. reward
Though Wilhelm hopes the turbine will benefit the city, he didn’t think it was worth the risk. If the turbine ever stops working for good, or incurs a significant amount of damage that has to be repaired, it could end up costing the city more money than it saved.
But Wilhelm also pointed out if electricity prices rise, New London is in the enviable position of paying less for its power than other towns. Rates didn’t climb seven years ago, but it doesn’t mean they won’t go up tomorrow. Or the next day.
Soon to be ex-city councilman Greg Malott (his term is over at the end of the year) doesn’t think it was worth the risk, either. But he loves green energy, and is proud of his town for supporting it. He wishes there were more benefits and less financial risk.
“We’re unable to measure how much money it saves because we didn’t buy into the computer system that would have captured that information and converted it into cost savings,” he said.
Malott said he would love to see all of the town’s power come from green energy sources – if there were more benefits.
“My feeling is that green energy should be lower cost than fossil fuel,” Malott said. “It doesn’t encourage communities of our size to go out and invest millions of dollars, when it doesn’t save any money.”
No More AM Radio
The “whoomp, whoomp” of the giant turbine blade can barely be heard at the base of the structure, and the distinct electrical buzz can’t be heard any further than the mouth of the gravel road that leads to it.
Don Wiseman and his wife Joan live closer to the the turbine than anyone, and they’ve been inhabiting that house since 1968. They can’t hear the turbine, but they do have one big problem with it.
“We cannot listen to AM stations because of the static,” Joan said.
While it may sound like a minor loss, the Wisemans love listening to AM radio. The electromagnetic field that surrounds the turbine is responsible for the interference, and anyone who has a pacemaker is warned not to go anywhere near it.
“I wished they never would have put it there,” Joan said. “It messed up the way we live.”
The Wisemans were provided an Internet radio with a monthly subscription free of charge, but when it went on the fritz, they decided going up to the utility company twice a month to get credit for the radio and then pay their bill was too much of a hassle. They are retired, and spend much of their time at home.
Annoyance or sickness?
Joan said the turbine’s other big annoyance are the flashing shadows cast by the spinning blade.
“There’s a certain time in the fall, and a certain time in the spring when the sun is just right, the blade block off the sun, so you have flashing sunshine and shadows through the house. That I can live with. But I don’t like it,” she said. “If someone was epileptic, they might have seizures.”
Seizures are one of the symptoms of the controversial “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” which also includes complaints of sleep disturbances, migraines, nausea, ear pressure, blurred vision, tinnitus and heart palpitations. The nationwide complaints, mostly from residents living near large wind farms rather than a single turbine, are real. But the syndrome could also be psychosomatic, caused by anxiety and heightened awareness of wind turbines.
Wind Turbine Syndrome is not recognized by any international disease classification system and does not appear in the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed database. The Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch website identified at least one Australian fossil fuel industry funded group involved in promoting the idea of Wind Turbine Syndrome. An investigation led to the foundation being stripped of its status as a health promotion charity.
Rampant reports about such effects prompted the board of health in Brown County, Wisconsin to declare turbines a human health hazard. The board cited hundreds of illnesses allegedly caused by the Shirley Wind Farm.
In December 2015, after reviewing studies and evidence, Brown County Health Director Chua Xiong declared there was insufficient evidence linking the wind turbines to the illnesses suffered by local residents.
Many of the residents, including a woman who said it felt like her ears were bleeding, were expecting the wind farm to be shut down, and were devastated by the news. According to a newspaper account of the ruling, Xiong was disappointed, believing the health effects were related.
Douglas Henrich, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Burlington, doesn’t discount the possibility of Wind Turbine Syndrome. He’s never seen a case himself, but there aren’t any wind farms in the area, either.
“Some people seem to have more sensitive ears than others. I have several patients who can’t be around any loud noises at all,” he said. “You never want to discount a patient’s problems as just being trivial or psychosomatic. Maybe there’s a real problem. I would certainly take it seriously.”
Henrich said Wind Turbine Syndrome is not recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but he would like to see further research into the matter.
“I’m sure it bothers people. But how much of that is an annoyance, versus a real illness,” Henrich said.
A pretty turbine
Despite their disdain for the wind turbine, the Wisemans said it has never made them sick. And while many in the community are concerned about the financial risk, everyone interviewed admired the idea of green energy.
Mary Chris, who lives in the country outside of New London and works at a salon in town, said the turbine is beautiful. She often watches it from her farm house, transfixed by the spinning blade. On certain days, she said, the clouds completely cover the blade, creating the illusion that it isn’t there at all.
She’s heard a lot of complaints from townies about the price of the turbine while cutting their hair, but none about the aesthetics. If the turbine lasts 20 years like it’s supposed to, those complaints likely will disappear. New London will be known as the tiny town that took a big gamble on wind energy – and won.
“I love to see it run,” Chris said. “I’ve always been impressed with them (turbines).”