Wind Turbulence: Wind Farms Energize McLean County’s Economy, Potential Effects Worry Nearby Residents

(Photo: Breanna Grow/AdaptBN)

(Photo: Breanna Grow/AdaptBN)

This piece is the first in a three-part series "Wind Turbulence" exploring why some rural McLean County residents oppose the planned wind energy developments near their homes.

With two existing wind farms, and two more underway, McLean County is shaping up to be a giant of wind energy.

In February county officials granted Chicago-based renewable energy company Invenergy permission to build the McLean County Wind Energy Center near Chenoa and Lexington. One month later Houston’s EDP Renewables got the green light to build the Bright Stalk Wind Farm across Chenoa, Lawndale and Yates Townships.

By 2020, with both projects operational, the county will have nearly doubled its wind energy production capacity from 546MW to 996MW, enough to power 324,000 homes.

Supporters tout the projects as a boon to the local economy, with both companies promising higher property tax revenues and hundreds of construction jobs.

The wind farms also offer annual income for farmers struggling against sizable debt and low commodity prices.

Then there’s the appeal of an energy source that creates zero pollution to power homes and businesses.

For many Bloomington-Normal residents, the potential benefits make adding more wind energy in McLean County “a no-brainer.”

So why do a number of rural residents wish the wind farm companies would pack up and head out?

Over 50 county residents near the planned developments hired an attorney to represent them during the county’s public hearing process to consider Invenergy’s and EDPR’s plans.

Some belonged to Chenoa Lexington Energy Awareness Now (CLEAN), an advocacy group opposing the projects.

Most identified as non-participants -- property owners who were ineligible or elected not to sign a lease agreement with the wind energy companies.

Those testifying at the hearings warned of the myriad problems wind turbines can create for nearby residents.

McLean County has a wealth of farmland that, from a developer’s standpoint, makes an ideal spot for wind turbines -- the large parcels of relatively flat land are far enough away from dense residential areas but close enough to connect to utility lines to transport the energy turbines generate.

But the hundreds of acres where the wind farms are planned aren’t barren -- they’re often owned by farmers living and working on their property.

Building the turbines, structures that can reach nearly 500 feet tall from base to blade tip, requires heavy equipment that can damage the drain tile that regulates water flow across surrounding fields.

Homeowners worried about the effects the turbines may have on their property values, fearful they may lose money if they decide to sell once the farms are built.

Local scientists and nature enthusiasts voiced concerns over the threat turbine blades pose to birds and bats, and the potential disruption construction associated with the wind farms could cause wildlife that rely on nearby rivers and streams.

Turbines also disrupt the flight patterns of private pilots and crop dusters operating nearby, as the owner of Thacker Airport testified in January, making it difficult or impossible to fly safely near wind farms.

Wind turbines also generate moderate noise and shadow flicker -- the effect of shadows falling across the landscape as the turbine blades rotate -- that can be annoying to those living nearby, perhaps even making some feel ill.

Longtime acoustician Dr. Paul Schomer testified on the effects of wind turbine noise before the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals in the most recent Invenergy case.

“I have been to wind farms where I personally have talked with people...and there is a small percentage of people who are really bothered by wind farms,” said Schomer, adding annoyance plays a factor in assessing noise sources.

Schomer advocated for a lower noise limit and increased turbine setbacks from residences than what the county and the Illinois Pollution Control Board currently mandates.

“Annoyance” may sound par for the course for folks living just about anywhere people are conducting business on their property -- ZBA board members made the same point during deliberations over Invenergy’s special use permit application.

But as many residents testified, whether they moved to rural McLean County 20 years ago or live on land kept within their family for generations, few anticipated they would one day be living near the towering structures.

That’s how Carlock farmer Larry Ryan feels about the White Oak Wind Farm that Invenergy built in 2011, over a decade after he moved his family to their new home in the country.

Ryan’s story will be landing tomorrow in Part 2 of our series "Wind Turbulence"