Wind Turbulence: ‘We Want to Know When There’s a Problem,’ Area Wind Developers Say

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

When Carlock farmer Larry Ryan testified during a public hearing for Invenergy’s proposed McLean County Wind Energy Center earlier this year, county zoning board members asked if Ryan had sought reparations for the flooding in his basement and other effects tied to the turbines surrounding his home.

Ryan had gone to the project substation when the issue first arose, but was told he’d need a lawyer to prove Invenergy was at fault. At the time he wasn’t aware the county records and follows up on resident complaints. Unsure what else could be done, he and his wife did their best to adapt to life near turbines. Approaching the project’s new operator NextEra Energy a few years later, Ryan was told nothing could be done -- he should have resolved the problem with Invenergy.

Ryan’s story illustrates a fear among county residents who will soon find themselves living near a wind farm -- that once the turbines are built, they’ll have to live with whatever happens next or leave their homes.

Some also worry any agreement with the companies will limit their ability to speak up.

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by an attorney representing EDP Renewables (EDPR), meant to show the dearth of wind turbine complications, only provides further evidence to the contrary in Ryan’s eyes. The FOIA revealed the county’s zoning office hasn’t registered a single complaint related to wind turbines at either of its two existing projects. Ryan says his neighbors have their share of concerns about the turbines, but either don’t know how to report them or don’t think anything will happen if they do.

AdaptBN contacted representatives from Invenergy, NextEra and EDP Renewables --  companies who will or already operate projects in the county -- to learn about their participant agreements and how they typically handle resident complaints.

Several requests for an interview were made to NextEra Energy representatives, but AdaptBN did not receive a response.

Both EDPR and Invenergy say of the different agreements they have with participating residents, none limit residents’ ability to register complaints or testify at public hearings about their experience with the projects.

The agreements do carry certain restrictions -- Invenergy’s Senior Corporate Communications Manager Mary Ryan said in an email correspondence the financial terms of the company’s easement agreements with landowners are kept confidential.

“We encourage landowners to seek independent legal advice before entering into the agreements,” she added.

EDPR Project Development Manager Erin Bowser said the company has three kinds of agreements for project participants, each with “standard contractual language about confidentiality because we’re protecting our business and our terms of the agreement.”

A lease agreement allows the company to build one or more turbines on the resident’s property, while an easement agreement grants the company access to the property.  

Some residents like Larry Ryan don’t have enough land to participate in a lease agreement but will still be living near the planned project.

“In those instances where people want to participate in the project and get annual revenue from our company we will often offer them a neighbor agreement,” said Bowser, adding those residents acknowledge they could experience “certain effects” like noise and shadow flicker living near the turbines. “They’re in essence waiving those effects.”

However, no resident is required to sign any agreements with a wind farm company.

If the company through its preliminary impacts studies determines a resident may experience noise and shadow flicker effects beyond what local ordinance permits, and isn’t interested in signing an agreement, “then we need to move that wind turbine, and that happens all the time,” Bowser said.

While EDPR does extend agreements that offer income to residents willing to waive turbine effects, Bowser said the company has “no interest in citing a wind turbine close enough to someone’s home that they are really going to be able to hear it -- that’s not what we’re aiming for.”

And although some residents may be able to hear the turbines from time to time, Bowser said a turbine that can be heard inside the home likely needs maintenance.

“We really do want to know when people are experiencing something that is out of the ordinary because that means there’s something we need to go out and fix. We want the turbines to be as productive as possible 365 days a year, so oftentimes this sort of feedback helps us to make sure our facilities are running exactly the way that they should be.”

When the company does receive a complaint, the process for handling it varies depending on the nature of the problem, but typically starts with a visit to the resident’s property or specific turbines to determine how to solve the issue.

Mary Ryan said Invenergy responds to all complaints within 72 hours; “Once a complaint has been received and verified, we take necessary actions to resolve it.” In the case of a noise complaint at one of its wind farms, that means a site visit and inspection to determine if a turbine needs repaired.  

Both companies report complaints to the county building and zoning staff on a monthly or quarterly basis as required by county ordinance. The McLean County Department of Building and Zoning maintains contact information for operators at each of its wind farms, including those projects still under development.

Asked whether Invenergy carries any responsibility to answer complaints on farms previously under its ownership, Mary Ryan answered the company “responds and/or redirects any questions that arise from projects previously owned by Invenergy to the projects’ new owners.”

Bowser said EDPR’s track record developing second and third project phases across the country stands as a testament to its relationship with landowners.

“The community, the landowners who enter into agreements with us trust us. We take the agreements very seriously, and they do too, but we also take their complaints, their questions, and their feedback very seriously and work in each additional phase to address that.”

As to the notion that developer agreements prevent residents from raising concerns: “I have never experienced anybody on our EDPR team getting feedback or complaints from a participating landowner and saying, ‘Yeah, too bad, you signed something.’ It’s simply not how we operate,” said Bowser. “I can’t speak for other companies -- some are better at this than others -- but we want to know.”

While each of McLean County’s estimated 172,000 residents stand to benefit from the economic development and clean energy wind farms generate, only a handful find themselves living among the turbines, and not always with their consent. Whether or not their worst fears prove unfounded, Bloomington-Normal’s neighbors face significant changes when the wind farms come to town.