“Nine [goats] have died since December” (Illinois)
Mar 15, 2010
“Wind turbines stir up bad feelings, health concerns in DeKalb County. Proponents point to reduced dependence on foreign oil, say no evidence of physiological harm”
—by Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune 3/14/10
Months have passed since anyone has waved hello to one another in Waterman or Shabbona in rural DeKalb County. Some people claim they’ve even stopped going to church to avoid having to talk to former friends.
“It’s gone. The country way of living is gone,” declares Susan Flex, who lives in Waterman with her husband and their nine children.
The animosity stems from the greenest of energy sources: a wind farm.
The turbines started arriving last summer, at a rate of two a day, their parts trucked in on flatbeds. Today 126 turbines dot the county, with another 19 just over the border in Lee County. They have been making enough electricity since December to power 55,000 homes, roughly twice the needs of Oak Park.
DeKalb County’s efforts appear to be in line with President Barack Obama’s push for the U.S. to produce 25 percent of its energy needs with renewable resources by 2025. Illinois has added more wind power last year than all but four states.
Yet the story playing out just an hour and half from Chicago is one of policy-meets-reality. While the idea of creating power from the wind sounds ideal, the massive structures that have gone up have dramatically affected the people who live there, country life and the landscape.
Each turbine stands about 400 feet tall from the tips of their blades to the ground — roughly the height of the Wrigley Building in Chicago. Infighting over the turbines has pitted families against landowners, farmers against friends, and even family members against one another.
Proponents are landowners and farmers who say they want to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. They also point out that the money leasing land for a turbine is more than what they collect renting to corn and soybean farmers.
The turbines, which are assessed at a million dollars each, represent the largest investment made in the county, said Ruth Anne Tobias, DeKalb County Board chairman. And the expected annual tax revenue is unprecedented: $1.45 million.
Steve Stengel, a spokesman for turbine-owner NextEra Energy Resources, a unit of FPL Group, whose holdings include Florida Power & Light Co., said $50 million in payments is expected to be made to landowners over the 30-year life of the project.
But such windfalls haven’t assuaged people who claim the turbines have harmed their health. They say noise from turbines is disrupting sleep, and they blame the strobe-like flashes produced by the whirling blades in sunlight — “shadow flicker” — for everything from vertigo to migraine headaches.
A group of 36 people who live near the turbines has sued DeKalb County and 75 landowners who leased land for the turbines. They claim the county illegally granted zoning variances and want the turbines taken down. NextEra is seeking to dismiss the suit based on “vague allegations of hypothetical harms.”
Ken Andersen, a county board member who voted to allow the turbines to be built, says he is trying to understand the people voicing concerns. One man, he said, called at 6 a.m. and told him a turbine that sounded like a 747 jet engine was keeping him awake. Andersen said he got out of bed and drove over to listen for himself.
“I went to this man’s yard,” Andersen said. “I made more noise walking across the crunchy snow.” The turbines, he said, “were making their whoosh, whoosh, whoosh noise.”
There is debate over whether there are links between the turbines and health problems. In December, an expert panel, which included doctors, hired by the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association, national trade associations for the industry, concluded there is “no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”
But Dr. Nina Pierpont, a board-certified pediatrician in Malone, N.Y., who has spent the last four years studying so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome, insists not enough studies have been conducted to rule out any connection between turbine noise and flicker shadow with health complaints.
Pierpont said low-frequency sounds from turbines can throw off a person’s sense of balance and cause unconscious reactions similar to car sickness. Sleep can also be disrupted. She said the feeling is similar to when people awake in fear, with a jolt and a racing heart.
Ben Michels’ friends say he may have the worst of it. Five turbines stand in a line behind his home, the nearest 1,430 feet away; the county restricts turbines from being any closer than that.
“I never had problems sleeping,” said Michels, a Vietnam War veteran. “I went to the Veterans Administration and they put me on sleeping pills. They had to continually upgrade them because they weren’t working.”
Michels, who has raised goats for 20 years and averaged one death per year, said nine have died since December. Autopsies didn’t reveal anything physically wrong with them. But he said veterinarians told him the goats may have suffered from stress. “Common sense tells me, it’s got to have something to do with the turbines,” Michels said. Other farmers say the turbines have spooked their horses and other animals.
NextEra, which has more than 70 wind farms in 17 states and two Canadian provinces, is used to such controversies, Stengel said.
“As you move to more heavily populated areas, you would see more — I don’t want to say opposition — but you would certainly have more people having questions and issues that needed to be resolved,” Stengel said.
DeKalb County, with a population of more than 100,000, is more densely populated than some areas where wind farms are located. NextEra chose the area, in part, for its proximity to Chicago, which benefits from the power those turbines produce, said John DiDonato, vice president of Midwest wind development for NextEra.
NextEra said 147.5 megawatts of energy produced by the DeKalb-Lee wind farm is distributed in 13 states and the District of Columbia, including Chicago and DeKalb County. Another 70 megawatts is sold to a consortium of 39 municipal electric utilities, for customers in and around northern and central Illinois.
Because the power from the turbines flows to areas of the greatest need, little goes to where it’s produced. That irony was highlighted on Christmas Eve when the lights went out in Waterman and Shabbona due to an ice storm and didn’t turn back on again for four days in some places. Meanwhile, the turbines kept cranking power to homes and businesses hundreds of miles away.
Mark Anderson, who lives in Park Ridge and hosts two turbines on investment property he owns in Waterman, said the turbines protect farmland from urban sprawl.
For David Halverson, who leased land for two turbines in Malta, said it’s a matter of national policy — not giving U.S. dollars to foreign oil.
“I am so pro-wind that I would let them put them up for nothing,” Halverson said.
There’s also the economics. Each turbine, which takes up about 3 acres total, pays Halverson about $9,000 per year, he said. That compares with the going rate of about $180 per acre per year to lease farmland in DeKalb County, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Yet not everyone who could have profited from the turbines did so.
Ken and Lois Ehrhart originally agreed to allow NextEra to run a power line through their property in Shabbona but then changed their minds. Leasing part of their 320 acres would have provided money to pay off a large hospital bill.
“I says nothing doing,” recalled Ken Ehrhart, who raises soybeans, wheat and corn. “We’re not the highfliers for all the modern ideas.”
Now Ehrhart said he is sure he made the right decision. Ehrhart said he also suffers headaches and nausea from shadow flicker from nearby turbines.
Opponents say it’s difficult to fight what has been held up as an answer to the planet’s energy needs.
“This is a very politically correct thing going on right now, and to say you’re opposed to a renewable energy source is like saying you don’t like mom and apple pie,” said Steve Rosene, who lives in Shabbona. “I used to go out in my front yard in a swing and just watch the sunset,” he said.
Mary Murphy, who hangs her clothes on the line instead of using the dryer, recycles and describes herself as a green person, says the turbines represent “green money” not “green energy.”
Others are so fed up they’re ready to pack up.
Donna Nilles said she has experienced migraine headaches and nausea from the shadow flicker from 22 turbines she can see from her home. She says that red lights atop the turbines have turned the night sky into “an airport” and that her six horses are terrified by noise from the turbines.
“I want out of this state, out of this county as soon as I can,” she said.