CLINTON, Ill. (WAND) – As Andrea Rhoades walks out to the edge of her property line, she can’t help but feel the wind whipping across her face.
For Rhoades, this 5-acre plot in rural DeWitt County isn’t just home; it’s the realization of a lifelong dream.
“I grew up in the country,” Rhoades said. “I had a wonderful childhood and I want that for my kids.”
The Rhoades family moved into their newly built house four months ago, but they worry a shadow will soon loom over their quiet, country lifestyle – a 500 to 600 foot shadow to be exact.
“They started edging closer and closer to me,” Rhoades said. “Now, there’s the possibility of a [wind] turbine being just a half-mile away from my home.”
A Profitable Horizon
Wind energy has become popular in central Illinois – just take a look at northern Macon County.
The flat rural landscape is ideal for creating the wind currents needed to make turbines profitable.
“In this part of Illinois, the northern two-thirds of Illinois, wind is by far the cheapest source of new electricity,” said Tradewind Energy development director Tom Swierczewski.
Clinton has become ground zero for a brewing battle between wind and sky.
“You buy a house in the country so you can enjoy the sunset,” said Mark Tippet, one of the landowners who oppose the wind farm. “[Now], I’ll sit and watch the sunset with a bunch of flashing red lights around me.”
Every few weeks, the county board plays host to heated debates between landowners trying to protect their wide open horizons and Tradewind Energy, the company promising job growth and tax revenue.
“DeWitt County is basically surrounded by wind turbines,” Swierczewski said. “We’re confident it’s a really good site.”
More Than Nuts and Bolts
Understanding wind energy is no breeze.
The turbines look like tiny pinwheels from a distance, but up close, they tower 500 to 600 feet above the farmland.
Their height usually corresponds to the amount of energy they can harness – the higher turbines usually produce more power due to stronger wind currents
At 12 mph, the blades begin to spin. At 24 to 28, they reach their maximum capacity. Once winds reach 50+ mph, a central computer applies the breaks and shifts the blades out of the path of the wind to maintain control.
That central computer that predicts power output and monitors the weather.
Swierczewski says that consistency makes wind energy all the more appealing to their partners.
“Once it’s up and operating, really all of the risk has been removed,” he said. “The contracts we enter into with our corporate partners are very attractive because they’re extremely predictable and very cost effective.”
A Gust of Passion
Wind energy is Tom Swierczewski’s life’s work.
He’s spent the last decade working on various projects to bring turbines to central Illinois.
“Every project I’ve worked on has had some objectors,” he said. “I think everyone is most passionate about their house and their kids’ education…It makes perfect sense.”
One of the biggest benefactors of the project according to Swierczewski: local schools, particularly the Clinton and Olympia school districts.
“The estimates that we have heard so far…could be anywhere from $2.5 to $4 million [per year] in revenue,” said Clinton superintendent Curt Nettles.
Over the life of the 40 year project, that’s $100 to $160 million.
But the parents of the kids who will be attending those schools? Not all of them think the project is a good thing.
“They want to tell the county…[and] school board, they’re going to pump all of this money into it,” said Clinton parent Richard Roth. “Is there a guarantee with that?”
Something in the Air
But that’s not the scariest proposition to Rhoades.
“The noises that these turbines can emit have been shown to have health implications,” she said. “I don’t want to see that for my family or for my young kids.”
The College of Family Physicians studied those possible side effects. They found people live close to wind turbines have an increased risk for sleep disturbances, headaches and anxiety-related issues.
But Swierczewski says those side effects can be negated – with the proper project plan.
“There are a few very modest impacts to folks that we try…to mitigate against,” he said. “A good design and good turbine placement is the right answer to almost every issue.”
The Social Storm
Rhoades started the Facebook group “DeWitt County Residents Against Wind Turbines.” The group now boasts more than 1100 members and has brought a series of proposed regulations to the DeWitt County Board.
“I’m worried about my property value,” Rhoades said. “We moved back to DeWitt County just recently to enjoy the beautiful countryside…and to think this project may impact me and I’m not benefiting financially whatsoever? That’s very concerning.”
The landowners who will benefit financially? Swierczewski says they will bring in roughly $10,000 to $15,000 each year during the 40 year contract. Those landowners have to approve the agreement a second time before construction begins.
If all goes well, Swierczewski says the towers will start going up in May 2019 and the project will be operational by the end of 2020.
But if Rhoades and her supporters get their regulations – particularly the ones on proximity to property lines – through the board, Tradewind says the project will be all but over.
“We’ve run an analysis on our project area and there are zero acres available to put wind turbines,” Swierczewski said.
Waiting on the Winds of Change
As Rhoades looks out at the cornfield bordering her property, she points to an indistinguishable point in the distance.
“There,” she said “Right across the road is a potential location.”
She pauses briefly.
“We worked really hard to build this home,” she said. “I feel like it’s taking something away from me and my life goals for somebody else’s financial gain.”
A project stuck in standstill – waiting for the winds of change to determine its course.
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