Kent Scheller is a big a supporter of renewable energy.
Forty-one solar panels shine from his house. So you think he’d be thrilled that another source of clean power may soon invade his hometown of Haubstadt.
And in a less complicated world, he would be. But there’s a problem.
Because of the area’s close proximity to a weather radar tower, a planned wind farm, which would be built by E.ON Climate & Renewables and stretch across Gibson and Posey counties, will affect meteorologists’ ability to forecast the weather for large swaths of the region, Scheller said.
Officials from the National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laid out those problems in a conference call with Scheller and other concerned citizens back in August.
Disturbances in radar, they said, could stretch as far as Evansville.
“This is not about being pro-wind or against it,” said Scheller, a physics professor at the University of Southern Indiana. “It’s ‘I want to know if a tornado is going to hit my house.’”
According to multiple studies by the NWS and NOAA, turbines can make it more difficult to forecast tornadoes. Turbines’ spinning blades and the clutter they kick up create motion in the Doppler, which can trigger false reports of a twister. They can also obfuscate real storms that are thundering through the area, as well as skew estimations of rainfall.
That’s a worrisome proposition for a region riddled with a history of destructive storms. But there are very few things wind farm opponents can do about it.
Gibson County has no zoning laws, meaning landowners can lease their property to E.ON in any way they wish. And federal agencies such as NWS have no legal means to stop a wind farm from being built in a problematic area. All they can do is provide guidance.
Of course, not everyone in Gibson and Posey are against the project. Far from it.
Environmentalists and anyone sick of breathing coal-plant pollution are leaping at the chance to embrace renewable energy.
And Karsen Rumpf, a wind development manager with E.ON, said the company has seen a rapturous response from many residents.
“We have roughly 34,000 acres worth of farmers and landowners in the area interested in the project,” he said. “They’re interested in a flood-resistant, drought-resistant crop that can strengthen their farms.”
According to Rumpf, Gibson could rake in $52 million in tax revenue. Posey could bathe in $38 million. And landowners who set aside property for turbines could make anywhere from $2,000 to $11,000 a year.
He also claimed E.ON will work with NWS and NOAA to lessen radar interference.
Signs praising wind energy peak from front yards all around the two counties. But proponents, Scheller said, haven’t done their research.
“I understand a farmer not wanting someone else telling them what to do with their land,” he said. “But you don’t have a right to compromise the common safety of the public.”
The red zone
This wouldn’t happen everywhere.
That huge sea of turbines nestled along the northern edges of the Indiana / Illinois border doesn’t affect radar at all.
But Gibson County is different. It houses an NWS tower in Owensville. And the closer a wind farm is to a radar tower, the more likely it is to muck with the Doppler.
NOAA measures the possibility of interference with color-coated “zones” that spread out in circles like a demented Twister board.
Here’s how it breaks down, according to NOAA’s Radar Operations Center:
- “The red zone” is anything within a two-and-a-half-mile radius of a Doppler tower. NOAA considers this a no-build area because turbines inside it can severely impact the radar and even damage the tower itself. This would affect residents closest to the farm.
- “The orange zone” is anything between two-and-a-half and 10 miles. Wind farms there “have the potential for moderate to high impacts,” NOAA states. This includes Fort Branch and Haubstadt.
- “The yellow zone” is between 10 and 20 miles. The possibility for lessened impact affects places like Princeton and Mount Carmel.
- “The green zone” is anything between 20 and 30 miles. Here’s where Evansville comes in. Possible impacts are much less severe, but potential problems still exist.
That means, in some shape or form, a wind farm could impact weather readings for hundreds of thousands of people.
Now: none of this means meteorologists won’t be able to forecast the weather. But it does make things more difficult.
The NWS has a few ways to mitigate radar confusion. Forecasters have to know a wind farm is in an affected area and adjust their readings accordingly.
That’s how things went down in Taylorsville, Illinois, last year.
On Dec. 1, an F-3 tornado barreled through the area at 155 miles per hour, decapitating buildings of their roofs and splintering dozens of structures along its hungry path.
At least 34 people were injured. No one was killed.
According to James Alton, an NWS meteorologist who spoke with Gibson residents on the August conference call, weathermen had to battle shaky data that night because the storm ripped past a wind farm.
Because of interference from the turbines, they couldn’t tell if the storm was still rotating or not. But using their knowledge of how that supercell acted – and taking into account its proximity to spinning turbines – they decided to extend the tornado warning and urge citizens to shelter in place.
If you go to NWS or NOAA websites, you’ll find other examples from different parts of the country. But when I spoke with Rumpf on Wednesday, he injected a little caveat each time he talked about radar interference.
“Effects,” he would say, “if any …”
Jessica Schultz, a radar program manager with NOAA, would say there’s no “if any” about it.
“Once the turbines are built it’s going to be in the data,” she said during the conference call in August. “There’s no way around it.”
When I asked him about his qualifier, Rumpf clarified and said E.ON is working with NWS and NOAA as we speak.
“We submitted preliminary information as far as certain farms we expect to be part of the project. We haven’t submitted a final preliminary layout,” he said. “We’re still in the process of getting that together and expect to get that in the coming months.”
In his office at USI, Scheller keeps a map showing each slice of land that E.ON has potentially leased for the wind farm.
Most of the properties sit inside the orange zone, he said, with a few scattered in the red.
There are large expanses of Southern Indiana farther from radar hubs. It would make more sense to slap a wind farm in a place like that, he said.
But according to Rumpf, there are several reasons for choosing this area.
Gibson and Posey have perfect infrastructure for the project. Their transmission lines boast enough capacity for E.ON to slice their energy into the grid at a reasonable price. And the local grids aren’t congested, unlike locales up north.
Then there are the wind speeds. They’re Goldilocks – not too strong, not too weak. And the area – already home to Toyota – isn’t skittish about tackling an industrial project, he said.
But in Gibson’s case, there’s something else, too: lack of zoning laws. It’s one of only 12 counties in Indiana without stipulations on land use.
“If you wanted to build a trash dump in your backyard, you could do it,” Scheller said. “It’s like the wild west.”
The county almost passed zoning laws a few years ago, but the plan crumbled. In the last few weeks, Scheller and others have pushed Gibson County commissioners to reconsider.
But the issue is unpopular for some, and for a very simple reason: people don’t like the government telling them what to do, especially with their own land.
Scheller understands all that. He gets why people are pushing for the farm. Aside from the money at stake, alternative sources of energy could really help an area shrouded in fossil fuel pollution.
He wants clean energy, too. Just not this way.
“I would fight for the right to put up wind turbines,” he said.
Looking at his map, he jammed his index finger into the center of the red zone.
“Just don’t put it in the dot.”
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