Interest in the Union County wind energy farm ordinance has renewed as construction begins on the first of 34 turbines in the county.
Supervisors Rick Friday, Ron Riley and Dennis Brown reported at least 15 individuals had called or emailed them over the weekend expressing concerns about the wind turbine ordinance. Several of the individuals spoke to more than one of the supervisors, the supervisors said at their regular weekly meeting Monday at the Union County Courthouse.
Most of the calls requested the supervisors add a limit to the total number of turbines, capping them at 36 – the number MidAmerican Energy had previously said it planned to build for the current project it calls the Southern Hills Wind Farm. Cindy Young also added a request that the supervisors not grant any waivers for the decommissioning plan.
The supervisors approved the decommissioning plan for Southern Hills April 2 and requested the total amount estimated for decommissioning be held in an escrow account or bond as provided by the ordinance.
MidAmerican has since clarified that two of the 36 sites approved are alternates and that they plan to only build 34 turbines for the project, but they will still use the total of $1,289,000 for decommissioning purposes, raising the per turbine amount to $37,912.
Riley reported that MidAmerican is in the process of procuring a bond for the amount and had questioned whether there was a specific form they needed to use and if the name on the bond should read “Union County, Iowa.”
Union County Auditor Sandy Hysell said there is no form they are required to use and that Union County, Iowa was the correct wording for the bond. She immediately emailed Matt Ott of MidAmerican Energy to answer the questions.
Riley said the supervisors would need to do more research into the legality of capping the number of turbines. The ordinance was approved April 2019 after three hearings where members of the public were invited to voice any concerns they had about placing restrictions on wind turbine construction in the county.
Kevin, Brian and Gordon Bolton, residents of rural Union County in the area where the current project is being built, attended the meeting to voice concerns during open forum.
Kevin Bolton works from home, exclusively over the internet. He recently moved to rural Union County after checking to make sure the over-the-air internet speeds and connectivity provided by Coon Valley Cooperative were sufficient for him to continue his work. His concern was that the planned wind turbines would interfere with the wireless internet signal and that internet had not been addressed in the ordinance.
“If Union County could begin to look at internet as a utility, especially given what’s happening with the COVID-19 crisis,” Bolton said. “If for some reason people don’t have access to internet, it would be more detrimental than not having access to roads in some cases. I think it’s worthwhile to treat internet as a utility.”
Bolton had spoken to Coon Valley Cooperative and said he would like to speak to Ott, who had not yet returned his email. Riley said Ott would be contacting Coon Valley Cooperative and Bolton. Riley reported that according to a conversation he had with Ott earlier Monday, Ott said MidAmerican has previously made adjustments for interference issues, but Riley cautioned that was not a promise to do so in this instance.
Bolton asked the board if a study had been completed regarding the effect wind turbines have on wireless internet, adding that if they degrade his signal, he would be forced to move to be able to continue working in his current job.
MidAmerican did a study in Adair County, Riley said.
“He (Ott) said that this morning,” Riley said. “They evaluated it themselves. … They worked closely with Coon Valley on those type of studies.”
Riley was unsure if an internet study was done for Union County.
The ordinance says that residents can file a complaint if the turbines cause problems for television, radio and telephone, but even if internet was included in that category, there is no provision to file the complaint and address the concerns, Bolton said. He asked if MidAmerican or the county would be responsible for correcting any issues with internet caused by the wind farm.
“If those windmills go up, and there is signal degradation, and I can’t get the required speeds for my work or for people’s school or for Brian’s work, is Union County prepared to begin to trench in hard line connection for rural customers?” Kevin Bolton asked.
“I think MidAmerican would be more ‘on the hook’ than Union County because this is their project and Coon Valley’s equipment and a private person’s equipment,” Riley said.
Bolton also asked whether someone from the county would be checking to ensure MidAmerican is complying with the terms of the ordinance on an on-going basis.
Oversight will come from the Union County Engineer Zach Gunsolley, the supervisor Rick Friday said. Riley added that the county could ask for reports from MidAmerican as well.
Bolton will continue to speak to Coon Valley Cooperative and MidAmerican Energy to find out if they have a procedure in place to address any problems as they arise and will let the supervisors know what he discovers.
Riley said there is a misconception in the public view about the supervisors’ role in “allowing” wind turbines. Previous to enacting the ordinance, there were no restrictions at all on the structures.
“We made these ordinances to protect us as much as we could,” he said. “A lot of that is a transaction between the landowner and the company, not much more different that if you are going to build a new house or something on your farm. Where we don’t have zoning, these are the teeth we could put into it.”
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