Wind Turbulence: Carlock Farmer Advises Future Wind Farm Residents: Take Heed
This piece is the second in a three-part series exploring why some rural McLean County residents oppose the planned wind energy developments near their homes.
When State Farm offered Larry Ryan a management position at its corporate headquarters in Bloomington in the late ‘70s, the lifelong Ohio native and his wife made the journey to begin a new chapter of life in Central Illinois.
Raising two sons in North Normal, Ryan continued his passion for collecting classic cars.
“My mom used to sit me on her lap and let me drive their ‘57 Ford,” he recalls. “That’s always been my past time.”
As the boys graduated high school and Ryan neared retirement, he and his wife dreamed of returning to the country lifestyle they’d known growing up in Ohio.
In 1997, with one son fresh out of high school and the other attending Illinois State University, the couple bought a farmstead in Carlock. Ryan built a garage on the property and began his retirement farming and restoring old cars.
A decade later, Ryan heard about a wind farm planned in the eastern corner of the county.
The farmer was familiar with wind energy -- he’d recently visited a development Palm Springs, California.
He says he and his entire family are “all for” renewable energy technologies like wind and solar power. But the turbines in Palm Springs were grouped tightly on a plot near the San Bernardino Mountains, miles from any homes; the project EDP Renewables planned to build would dot over 22,000 acres of farmland with 240 wind turbines.
Ryan recalls the sentiment among his neighbors as construction began on the Twin Groves Wind Farm in 2007: “I’m glad they’re not here.”
“Then all at once somebody calls me and says, ‘You know they’re putting them up around us.’”
Chicago-based developer Invenergy planned to build 100 turbines in the area, spurring locals to form a group similar to those residents opposing the county’s modern developments.
Despite their efforts -- and plenty of money sunk into lawyer’s fees, Ryan says -- the White Oak Wind Energy Center began operations in 2011 after Invenergy sold it to NextEra Energy.
Now Ryan’s 20-year homestead is surrounded by turbines in every direction. The 1.5-megawatt turbines stand 262 feet from ground to hub, with three rotating blades that take the structure’s total height past 300 feet.
Standing in Ryan’s backyard, the turbines are audible and sound similar to an airplane approaching from the distance as its blades turn.
Ryan says the noise level varies; the time of day, the direction of the wind, even the weather can amplify or muffle the sound, but he can always tell when the turbine is on. The same goes for the shadow flicker that comes through the kitchen and living room windows, most prominent in the early morning when Ryan and his wife eat breakfast together.
While he doesn’t experience them every day, Ryan says the turbine’s effects have been strong enough to change the way he and his family use their property.
He and his wife no longer host evening campfires with friends. They’ve rearranged their furniture to keep the shadow flicker out of sight. Sometimes the couple opts to leave the house for a few hours when the shadow flicker and noise are particularly high.
Local and state laws are meant to protect residents from the turbines’ potentially intrusive effects.
McLean County updated its zoning ordinance in 2016, with use standards dictating that wind farm companies can’t place a turbine within 1,500 feet or three times the turbine height (whichever is greatest) from the foundation of any occupied residence.
A map constructed using 2018 Google satellite images and tools shows the location and approximate distance of the turbines from Ryan’s property.
Measuring from Ryan’s farmhouse near the center of his property, the closest turbine is approximately 1,642 feet away. But as some property owners pointed out, that distance changes and can be much closer when measured from the property line. The turbine closest to the Ryans is approximately 1,281 feet from the nearest corner of the farm.
With turbines potentially closer to other spots on the property, the structures can change how residents use the entirety of their land.
Some of the turbines’ effects are more than just annoying. Ryan says he noticed water in his basement for the first time during a strong rain after crews had put up the turbines in 2010.
Walking along the edge of his property, Ryan noticed pieces of red clay lying in neighboring fields, evidence that someone had broken the drain tile essential to regulating water flow on historic U.S. farms. Suspecting turbine construction crews had done the damage, Ryan paid a visit to the local project substation.
But Ryan says he was quickly told he would need a lawyer to prove Invenergy was responsible for the broken tile, something the farmer said he wouldn’t have the time or the money for. Ryan went home unsure what to do next. He and his wife placed their washer and dryer on skids and coped with the intermittent flooding.
A few years ago Ryan again went to the substation, now under NextEra’s ownership, hoping to address the problem.
“The answer I got that time was, ‘Why are you waiting until now?’ I said I came here before and they said I had to prove it. And they told me, ‘Well you should have got that taken care of with Invenergy and there’s not much we can do right now.’”
After that, Ryan says he gave up on finding a solution. “I don’t speak to them. I don’t mess with it anymore.”
Instead, he continues to testify at wind project hearings in and around McLean County, sharing his experience living near the turbines in the hopes that others will take heed.
His main message to residents facing the prospect of wind turbines near their homes: “Make sure you get something out of it.”
At just 5 acres, Ryan’s farm wasn’t large enough for a turbine, and he says Invenergy never contacted him about the project. He recalls hearing talk of nuisance fees paid to non-participants but says he never saw any such payment.
Ryan says that at the time he didn’t know residents can file formal complaints with the county’s zoning office. County Building and Zoning Director Phil Dick said if a resident registers a complaint with the department, “we would ask them if they’d already contacted the wind farm to see if they registered a complaint there. And if the complaint wasn’t dealt with, then we would contact the company as well.”
However, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, filed by an attorney representing EDP Renewables, showed the county department has not registered a single complaint related to wind turbines in McLean County. Dick noted the office did receive a complaint having to do with a substation at one of the projects, which was resolved.
Ryan says he isn’t surprised by the FOIA’s results. While he knows from speaking to some of his neighbors he isn’t the only one with reservations about the turbines, he suspects many residents near the wind farms feel as he does -- that it’s no use fighting the big wind energy companies and their lawyers.
He also says certain agreements between the wind farm developers and participants prevent residents from complaining or speaking to the media about the projects.
Read what representatives from Invenergy and EDP Renewables have to say about participant agreements, turbine issues and resident complaints in part three of the series Monday.