HARRISBURG – A proposed wind farm near Harrisburg by a Chicago company quickly divided this mid-Missouri town over the past month.
Three weeks ago Chicago-based E.ON Climate and Renewables sent several residents in areas near Harrisburg letters stating the company’s intent to explore whether a wind farm could be viable in the area. At an informal public meeting at Harrisburg High School on Saturday morning, tempers flared at times as residents shared their concerns with Boone County officials.
Area resident Ashley Ernst helped organize the meeting after getting a letter. E.ON officials did not attend the meeting, but the company will hold a public meeting at the Harrisburg Lions Club at 120 E. Sexton St. at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Ernst said the goal of Saturday’s meeting was to draft a list of questions to ask E.ON officials. During the course of the two-hour meeting, Harrisburg residents expressed concerns about health effects caused by wind vibrations, the wind farm’s effect on property values in the area, noise issues, and environmental damage caused by rotating fan blades, among other issues. Ernst said the meeting brought people with differing viewpoints together and accomplished its goal.
“There were some really good questions and really good perspectives,” Ernst told the Tribune after the meeting. “We’ve got to go home and think about it – a lot to process.”
At least 75 community members attended the meeting Saturday. Over the past three weeks as news about the project trickled out, residents quickly became divided on the issue.
Local officials cautioned the public that if the project ever comes to fruition, it is at least five years away from completion. At this stage little is known about the project, or its effects on farmland near Harrisburg, Janet Thompson, District II Boone County commissioner, and Stan Shawver, Boone County director of resource management, told the crowd.
E.ON Climate and Renewables manages more than 3,600 megawatts of solar, wind and renewable energy storage projects. Most of the wind farms the company manages are in Texas. The company also manages wind farms in New York, Illinois and Indiana.
Thompson told the crowd that E.ON approached Boone County late last year to explore the possibility of setting up a large pole to test the viability of a wind farm. Later last summer the county granted E.ON a conditional use permit to build the structure.
“The purpose of that is to determine how will that particular use impact roads, property values, potential development, any number of things,” Shawver said.
Previous technology made places like Iowa more hospitable to wind energy because the rolling landscape of mid-Missouri throughout the Missouri River Valley and its tributaries made wind conditions less desirable for farms, Thompson and Shawver said.
New technology could open the door to wind farms in this part of the country. Under current Boone County regulations, a wind farm would fall under an industrial use, Shawver said. If the project presses forward, Boone County likely would not re-zone most of the county for industrial uses, so a separate zoning classification for wind or renewable energy would need to be created, Shawver said.
In that case, Shawver said the process could probably proceed if E.ON obtains a number of conditional use permits for a number of turbines.
“We are so early in the process of figuring out where we’re going to go,” Shawver said. “It’s really too early to say.”
The test pole consists of a meteorological mast about 100 feet tall and sits on the property of local resident Brent Voorheis on Route J. Over the next two years E.ON will study wind conditions in the area and determine if they want to press forward, Thompson and Shawver said.
Two years ago an E.ON employee approached Voorheis, through his son-in-law who lives near an E.ON wind farm in Sweetwater, Texas, about a wind project the company wanted to build in Missouri.
Like many at the meeting, Voorheis was a skeptic, but he later came to realize that wind energy was harmless and would help the environment, he said. With commodities prices sagging and rural areas of the state hurting, Voorheis saw the wind farm as a way to preserve his 700-acre family farm as his ailing father died.
“I said, ‘Dad, as long as I can afford to pay the property taxes, I plan to do exactly what we’re doing: raising cattle and kids out in the country,’” Voorheis said. “So a little over a year ago I signed the lease.”
Companies like E.ON generally pay farmers between $18,000 and $24,000 per year to lease space for three to four wind turbines, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development Division of Energy.
Tom Weislocher moved from Columbia to a 20-acre plot about three miles from Harrisburg last year. A former insurance salesman, Weislocher retired to the countryside with his girlfriend to get away from the city and move to an area where the sky grows dark and quiet at night.
Weislocher did not take a position on the wind farm, but he told the Tribune he is leaning toward opposing it.
“It would not be dark with 50 red lights blinking (on top of wind turbines),” Weislocher told the Tribune. “It would not be quiet with 50 turbines going.”
Like many others at the meeting, Weislocher worries about the health effects from living so close to rotating fan blades and vibrations they produce. Since the first wind farm was built in the U.S. in the 1980s, people have reported vibrations from wind farms cause headaches, vertigo and other sleep-related problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Numerous studies have debunked that myth. A 2014 study showed that living near wind farms does increase self-reported cases of annoyance and sleep disturbance, but overall there is a tolerable level of sound around 35 decibels that does not affect sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Of the many other claimed health effects of wind turbine noise exposure reported, however, no conclusive evidence could be found,” the study found.
Still, the purported health effects by wind farms are already having an effect on Harrisburg. Columbia realtor Ryan Lidholm told the crowd that a buyer of a property near Harrisburg was scared off after she heard about the proposed wind farm.
Lidholm also did not take a position on the project. Still, he warned the crowd that the wind farm will cause property values to decrease near Harrisburg as buyers get scared off by the project.
“Property values are all about supply and demand,” Lidholm said. “We have an unchanging supply and we have very high demand currently, but clearly demand is already diminishing just on the idea that a wind farm might go in.”
In 2008, Missouri voters approved a ballot initiative that required all investor-owned utilities to generate or purchase at least 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2021.
Currently six wind farms operate in Missouri and produce 458.5 megawatts of power, according to the Missouri Department of Energy and the Kansas Energy Information Network. All sit in the northwest part of the state near their cousins in the Loess Hills of southwestern Iowa.
Ameren Missouri is currently building 157-megawatt and 400-megawatt wind farms in northwest and northeast Missouri, respectively. Both facilities will cost more than a combined $1 billion, Ameren said in a news release last week.
Ameren expects both wind farms to be operational by the end of 2020, the release stated.
Thompson cautioned the public to remain open-minded, to trust Boone County’s zoning process and to participate in public meetings.
“Sometimes we get really worried about something when we don’t have enough information,” Thompson told the crowd. “There are so many opportunities for us to get misinformation, to not understand fully what is happening.”
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