An energy development company has taken the first steps toward potentially building a wind farm valued at more than $200 million in southern Eau Claire County.
The company, RWE Renewables Americas, is exploring the possibility of pursuing the massive project with 40 to 70 wind turbines on about 20,000 acres of farmland in the towns of Clear Creek and Pleasant Valley, said Eric Crawford, wind development manager for the company.
Representatives of RWE Renewables, a subsidiary of Essen, Germany-based RWE AG, already have met with county officials and residents of the proposed site to discuss preliminary details of the proposal and potential compensation.
On top of lease payments to landowners who agree to allow the company to place the 500-foot-tall turbines on their property, RWE projects it would make payments totaling about $26 million to Eau Claire County and the two towns over the 30-year life of the project, Crawford said. Plans call for 60 percent of that money to go to the county and 40 percent to the towns.
Despite those enticing sums and the promise of green energy, resistance already is forming among area landowners, several of whom are worried about health and safety concerns that have arisen among neighbors of other wind farms in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
“It’s a hot-button issue,” said Clear Creek town chairman Lotty Macik. “There already have been about 20 or so neighbors in here to talk about why they oppose the project.”
Some neighbors have even been distributing leaflets warning residents about negative health effects – mostly related to sound and light flicker from turbine blades – reported by people living near existing turbines.
For his part, Macik said he is keeping an open mind and trying to educate himself about the pros and cons of wind energy.
As a result of the controversy blowing up in the area, Macik expects a big turnout at an informational meeting the town arranged at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Clear Creek Town Hall.
RWE representatives met recently with county officials to describe their wind farm proposal and inquire about necessary permits, said Rod Eslinger, director of the county’s Planning and Development Department.
The proposed site is west of U.S. 53, east of Highway 93 and south of Cleghorn.
The company has not yet applied for a conditional use permit to locate a meteorological tower in the target area that would measure sustained wind speed and direction and help to determine the project’s feasibility, Eslinger said. Ultimately, a project of this proposed magnitude would require approval by the state Public Service Commission and also likely a local public hearing and grading and access permits, he added.
Preliminary analysis suggests that wind in the area averages about 17 mph, Crawford said.
“We think that would be generally enough to support a wind farm,” he said, noting that the company selected the site because of positive wind data, the prevalence of agricultural land and a Wisconsin political climate viewed as supportive of pursuing sustainable energy sources.
Even if the testing checks out and enough residents grant access to their land, RWE officials don’t foresee starting construction on the Eau Claire County project before 2023, Crawford said.
The proposed 200 megawatt wind farm would boost Wisconsin’s total wind energy production, now estimated at about 737 megawatts, by more than 25 percent, said Tyler Huebner, executive director of the renewable energy advocacy group Renew Wisconsin.
Huebner said generation of more wind energy would be good for Wisconsin not only for the financial incentives, but because it’s a clean form of energy and would make the state less reliant on coal and other resources imported from out-of-state sources. All of the major wind farms in Wisconsin are either owned by or sell their energy to utilities, which then use it to power homes and businesses.
“It’s a more sustainable way to make power because it generates zero carbon emissions and zero pollution,” Huebner said. “It’s just a very environmentally benign way to generate electricity.”
Despite those widely admired traits, many wind farms have stirred up considerable opposition.
Eau Claire County Supervisor Carl Anton, who represents part of the town of Clear Creek, was exposed to such a controversy in Mason County, Mich., before moving to the Chippewa Valley in 2005. He lived in the midst of the Consumers Energy Lake Winds Energy Park, a wind farm south of Ludington with 56 turbines.
Anton recalled that problems arose because agreements between the developer and landowners were made before local government regulations pertaining to the project had been fully defined.
In that case, 17 plaintiffs sued Consumers Energy in 2013 alleging that noise, vibrations and flickering lights from the turbines were causing sleeplessness, headaches, dizziness and other physical symptoms as well as economic loss. The suit was settled this year, according to a story in the Muskegon Chronicle.
In wide open, flat areas of the U.S. where wind blows almost continuously, wind farms can be quite successful, but they tend to cause friction when placed near where people live, Anton said, adding, “Wind turbines and people are not compatible.”
He urged Clear Creek and Pleasant Valley residents to do their homework before committing to the local proposal.
RWE’s proposal calls for placing turbines between a third of a mile and a full mile apart and setting them back at least 1,500 feet from the homes of neighbors who don’t host a turbine, Crawford said.
Brenda Salseg, a spokeswoman for Forest Voice, a group that opposes the proposed Highland Wind Farm in the St. County town of Forest, also advised Eau Claire County residents to approach the wind farm proposal with caution.
“Potential hosting landowners should be seeking legal counsel with expertise in land contracts and be aware that most wind leases will prohibit the alteration of any land or the erection of any structure on the leased farm during the wind contract period,” Salseg said, maintaining clauses in the contracts can strip the right of property owners to have full enjoyment of their land.
Salseg, whose group has been fighting the Highland project for nearly a decade, also warned about potential soil damage from heavy equipment and the addition of access roads, transmission lines, substations and foundations for towers.
“The very real possibility that signing a wind lease will permanently damage relationships with family and friends should be considered too,” Salseg said. “Property owners who host commercial wind turbines not only sell their property rights to the wind industry for 20 or 30 years, (but) they sell out their nonparticipating neighbors too.”
Crawford, however, suggested many of the concerns are exaggerated and pointed out that turbine technology is constantly advancing.
He acknowledged turbines do create sound and light flicker but said, “We mitigate and minimize them to the greatest extent possible.”
Not only does the company strive to “do right by landowners,” but it would be required to adhere to state requirements about maximum noise levels, Crawford said.
RWE, which operates 23 wind farms in North America, attempted to alleviate local landowners’ fears by offering free tours last week of its Radford’s Run Wind Farm in Illinois. Roughly 20 local residents toured the 2-year-old facility.
“What we find is that when people experience wind energy first hand, a lot of misconceptions are dispelled,” Crawford said.
At the end of the project’s 30-year life span – unless the company seeks to refurbish the turbines and landowners agree to a new contract – RWE would be contractually required to decommission the wind farm, remove the equipment and restore the land to its original condition.
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