Each morning from March until September, Dave and Stephanie Hulthen and their four children will awake to the flick of a shadow strobing across the east-facing front of their home. The shadow flicker will go on for nearly an hour, until the sun has risen above the 400-foot tops of four wind turbines located east of their home, the closest just 1,400 feet away.
It’s a new reality for the Hulthens, who built their home eight years ago and planned to raise their children and live out the rest of their days in the rural DeKalb countryside. When wind developers showed interest in neighboring land a couple of years ago, the couple crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.
• Farmers and rural landowners become sharply divided over wind farms in Illinois.
• Critics say a 750- or 1,000-foot setback is inadequate; 2,500 feet to a mile is needed.
• Proximity to transmission lines, wind and Chicago puts Illinois on wind front line.
“We visited a wind farm, and we thought, maybe this won’t be too bad,” Stephanie recalls. When the turbines came on line in December 2009 and 13 were within a mile of their home, reality set in. Dave describes the noise as a low-frequency hum at best, and like living in an airport at worst. By April, they set out to document their daily life on the wind farm with a blog, www.lifewithdekalbturbines.blogspot.com.
“The industry can’t be trusted,” Dave says.
The Hulthens are perhaps the highest-profile example of how wind farms are dividing rural Illinois. Indeed, residents in Adams, Lee, DeKalb, Livingston and McLean counties (and more) are hotly debating setbacks and nuisance claims.
Lawsuits have been filed, including one by 36 DeKalb residents that seeks to have 126 turbines removed due to complaints about sleep disturbances, illnesses and vertigo. The lawsuit against the county board and 75 landowners alleges the county illegally granted zoning variances.
In Lee County, the company that constructed the towers in DeKalb (near the Hulthens) and just over the county line in Lee County, sued the village of Lee for breach of contract. The suit was later thrown out.
And even in counties where folks aren’t suing each other, the arguments are vehement and impassioned.
What’s brought all this on, in an industry that once enjoyed nearly unilateral praise for creating green energy, local jobs and extra farm income?
Larry Gerdes, a fervent anti-wind crusader who owns farmland in Bureau and Lee counties and lives in Atlanta, Ga., says the entire wind industry is wrong for Illinois.
“Just follow the money. Developers will build turbines wherever they can to get their subsidies,” Gerdes says. He adds that the federal stimulus package gives 30% of the subsidies up front, as soon as they prove access to the grid and turn on the first turbine. And about half are European companies, so some of that money leaves the country.
“They’re going to collect between $100 million and $300 million in cash once they generate the first kilowatt of power,” Gerdes says of the Spanish wind company Iberdrola. “They don’t care about the quality of the wind or how much they produce.”
Illinois’ wind quality is but one of the areas people are split on.
Gerdes argues Illinois winds aren’t nearly as good as those out west. Yet Kevin Borgia, director of the wind developer group Illinois Wind Energy Association, says most Illinois winds (outside of southern Illinois) are rated as Class 3 or 4, which are “definitely sufficient to operate.”
Borgia adds that what makes Illinois particularly attractive to wind developers is its proximity to high-voltage transmission lines, which wind farms can tie directly into.
“Electricity is worth absolutely nothing if you can’t get it to people,” Borgia says. “Maybe Illinois isn’t the Saudi Arabia of wind the way South Dakota is, but Illinois has access to markets — St. Louis and especially Chicago.”
Parts of northern Illinois are also connected to the PJM electric grid, which delivers power to 50 million people in 14 states to the east. “Of those states, Illinois has the best wind,” Borgia adds. “It’s the best wind this side of the Mississippi.”
Setbacks are another point of contention. Ordinances vary by county, though most state that towers must be as far away from primary structures as they are tall (typically, 400 feet), or that the towers be at least 1,000 feet from a primary dwelling.
The Hulthens say that’s a joke. They are experiencing life at 1,400 feet and say anything less than a mile is unacceptable.
Borgia defends the wind industry, saying setbacks that far will drive wind companies out of Illinois. He argues that setbacks have very little to do with residents’ happiness. “LaSalle hasn’t had a lot of complaints and theirs are 750 feet from primary structures.”
So what does account for the different experiences among wind farms? Why does one wind farm encounter so many problems while others operate virtually complaint-free?
Borgia thinks it’s a function of the attitudes of the people in that area, combined with the developer’s approach.
In the Hulthens’ case, the local wind farm is owned by NextEra Energy Resources LLC, a subsidiary of Florida Power and Light. The couple has struggled to get straight answers from the NextEra hotline, which knows so little about the company that operators even mispronounce the name.
Borgia acknowledges that opposition can arise when a developer starts out on the wrong foot and doesn’t treat people with respect.
Yet, an industry insider who has requested anonymity says NextEra and FPL have a bad reputation even among wind companies. “The situation that happened to those folks in DeKalb [shadow flicker] could have been prevented. Most developers work to avoid that.”
NextEra did not return Prairie Farmer’s calls for comment.
Gerdes says every wind company is bad news, and is only in it for the money.
Yet Ryan Gammelgard, an Illinois Farm Bureau attorney, says many landowners have signed contracts and have wind farms on their land who have not experienced the shadow flicker problems. “That’s not to say the Hulthens’ concerns are abnormal, but they don’t seem to reflect the experience of most people I have worked with.”
And he concurs with Borgia’s assessment of the company attitudes. “Companies that say they won’t take into consideration all the neighboring landowners that will be affected tend to have more problems.”
For the Hulthens, that’s little comfort. For Illinois landowners, it may serve as a warning: Be careful with whom you go into business.