Wind farms generate conflict across state

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.

Key Points

• 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.

Big fight

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.”

How windy?

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.”

Spacing out

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.

A landowner’s take on wind farms

Russ and Marilyn Rosenboom have farmed in Kankakee County since 1972. And sometime in the not-so-distant future, they’ll have a handful of wind turbines on their farm, located about seven miles from their house and just 1,000 feet from their son’s home.

“The way I look at it, it’s real easy,” Russ Rosenboom says. “Do you want to get paid for them, or do you want to just look at them? And they pay well. It may not be the best thing going, but they’re decent.”

The Rosenbooms were approached a couple of years ago by the wind company Horizon Energy, which quickly signed up 36,000 acres. Rosenboom then served on a committee of landowners to develop a contract suitable to all parties. The committee worked with an attorney in Bloomington, and the wind company picked up the bills.

The landowners developed the contract over the course of a year. “We had things as farmers that we really wanted and were not negotiable, and we had some things we would have liked but didn’t get,” Rosenboom describes. Among them: compaction. They’ll receive four years’ crop value on about 6 acres (per tower) as a fee for compaction incurred during construction. They’ll also receive compensation for damaged field tile, whether it shows up right away or a year down the road. They asked for nutrient compensation, as depleted on areas construction trucks would run on, but didn’t get it.

The landowners also negotiated for inflation on their payments. They hoped to tie it to the energy index for inflation, but settled for using the U.S. Consumer Price Index for inflation. “The max we can get is 5% per year. If the CPI goes up 8% in a year, we get 5% and the other 3% roll over. We don’t lose it, it just rolls forward,” he adds.

If the wind company someday ceases business, they have to remove all towers and concrete to a depth of 4 feet. “There’s 350 yards of concrete in each hole and 148 ton of rebar,” Rosenboom says. “We want them to take that with them.”

Rosenboom feels the committee’s negotiation was successful, in part because so many landowners signed on and used its contract. In fact, the wind developer went on to double the size of the project, turning it into a $2 billion investment.

Their contract is considered a “community” one, where everyone who signs on gets a payment, regardless of whether their land receives a turbine — which can happen, because of setbacks. “We wanted to avoid hard feelings,” Rosenboom says.

The landowners ultimately signed a 30-year contract, with two 10-year extensions. After the first 30 years, they’ll receive a 25% raise, and at the end of the next 10 years, they’ll get another 25%.

“That’s good news,” Rosenboom laughs. “The bad news is, I’m 70 years old!”

Consult a lawyer before signing contract

Ryan Gammelgard is an attorney in Illinois Farm Bureau’s General Counsel office who also has private-practice experience representing both wind developers and landowners. His main advice to landowners whose doors are being knocked upon by wind developers: Make an informed decision.

“This is a legally binding agreement,” Gammelgard says. Consult an attorney before signing anything. Make sure you and your attorney have carefully reviewed the contract and understand it.

“Any agreement you sign will have a long-term effect on you and your land, and will also impact future generations,” he adds. Consider these issues.

• If a lease is assigned, will the original developer still be liable if the new developer defaults? Who will pay to take down turbines?

• Are you being fairly compensated for your land? For crop and soil damage?

• What is the developer’s background?

• Is there a guarantee as to how many turbines will be on the land?

• Is your contract specific, defining key terms and conditions to be clearly understood, and to ensure the company will meet its obligations?

• How broad is the confidentiality clause?

• Do you understand liability issues, including nuisance lawsuits, third-party usage, etc.?

• Are you aware of tax issues?

• Have you reviewed the documents with your farm manager, attorney, tax adviser, family, etc.?

• Have you discussed prevention of damage to land during construction?

Pilot on turbines: It’s a nightmare

Rick Reed doesn’t mince words when he describes the effect wind turbines have on aerial applicators. Reed operates a Mattoon-based aerial application business and is president of the Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association. He doesn’t have turbines in his operating area, but he recently flew through a wind farm.

“I have 14,000 hours of flight time, and I’ve been in the business for 34 years. And it made me nervous,” Reed says. “It’s a dangerous situation, and it will impact areas where they’ve put those turbines in.”

Reed says application in or around wind farms will occur on a field-by-field basis. The IAAA has adopted a resolution stating that in the interest of pilot safety, it will refuse to apply product in or near wind farms, should “the proximity be considered hazardous.”

Flying around and among towers is inherently dangerous, and Reed says turbines create turbulence that not only makes flying dangerous, but also can displace the product being applied. “It’s a nightmare,” he adds.

Wind developers have offered to turn off turbines when spraying will occur, but Reed says that’s a next-to-impossible task. They would need to shut off every turbine within a half-mile of the field being sprayed, and applicators can’t always pinpoint when they’ll spray a field. It’s not uncommon to have less than 24 hours between booking and application.

Reed says some wind developers are responding, placing turbines in rows. “But I was at a meeting the other night and they said: ‘Don’t worry, those crop dusters will fly around anything! Next question.’

“It’s the same as any other business. There are good companies and there are bad companies.”


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SPINNING ROUND: Turbine development has pitted local landowners against absentee landowners, who tend to favor extra income from a turbine they don’t have to live with.

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MAKING NOISE: Stephanie and Dave Hulthen say turbine noise has caused sleep loss and affected their quality of life. NextEra offered to plant trees, but then later admitted it couldn’t plant trees large enough to stop the flicker.

This article published in the June, 2010 edition of PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.