Wind: The Pros And Cons Of Harvesting 'The Third Crop'

Sep 18, 2018

Illinois is only seven years away from its deadline for getting 25% of the state’s energy from renewable sources. Wind power will have to play a big part to reach that ambitious goal. The state ranks 6th in the nation for the number of wind turbines, at more than 2,600. These wind farms are generally located in rural areas, many on active farms where people are raising corn and soybeans. The wind becomes a third crop that can be “harvested” year-round, giving the farmer a steady rental income.

Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Wind energy doesn’t create emissions and doesn’t use water. It has a fairly small footprint, since turbines are vertical and just need a small access road. And some people enjoy the way they look, those poles topped with three spinning blades, rising from the fields.

But not everyone’s a fan.

If you’ve driven along any rural highway in northern DeKalb County in the past year, you’ve seen the signs in yard after yard: a stylized wind turbine with a circle and a slash over it. “No wind farm.” Proposals to build one, maybe two, industrial farms in the area prompted the DeKalb County Board to start the process of creating a wind power ordinance to regulate the siting and specs of any future projects. The wind farm in the southern part of the county was built nearly a decade ago under a less stringent special-use permit.

Kevin Hickey is a retired Sheriff’s Deputy whose southern DeKalb County home is surrounded by turbines: He counts five within half a mile of his house. In July, he spoke at a county zoning committee meeting to warn officials about how his life has changed since the wind farm was built in 2009.

Signs along State Highway 64 in DeKalb County
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

“We have annoying shadow flicker, we can’t sleep with open windows, we pay larger utility bills,” Hickey said. “We have spent thousands on tree moving and building improvements. I’m here to tell you there are negative impacts with this decision.”

Brad Belanger says he listens to Kevin Hickey’s speech every time he sits down in his office to work on wind farm issues. Belanger is a member of Concerned Citizens for DeKalb County, a group organized in opposition to the proposed wind farm. Belanger said “To hear the guy stand up there and make that speech, it made my stomach all queasy and upset. I don’t want to say it has torn his life up, but it has severely impacted his life, financially, lifestyle, etc. And it all could have been addressed with a zoning ordinance that looked at the health, welfare, and property rights of the residents.”

The DeKalb County Board's Planning and Zoning Committee is in the process of developing an ordinance dealing with future wind power development. It will host public hearings Sept. 24 at the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb before presenting it to the full county board.

Lisa Bergeron, member of DeKalb County Concerned Citizens, has been a regular at DeKalb County Zoning meetings since learning of a proposed wind farm near her home.
Credit Victoria Lunacek

Lisa Bergeron is another very active member of Concerned Citizens for DeKalb County. “We are not anti-wind,” she said. “We absolutely are all for and support renewable energy. But we think these projects are getting too large. They are best sited in appropriate places.”

So what is an appropriate place? For starters, the nation has a “wind corridor,” which runs from Minnesota to Texas, including Illinois. That means wind speeds are high enough and consistent enough to make it worthwhile for a company to invest millions to build and maintain a wind farm. Then there’s a lot more to consider beyond the wind map. Are local governments receptive to the project? Can you find enough land owners to host these massive structures?

Shanelle Montana is with EDF, the international company looking to build a wind farm in northern DeKalb County. She says “micro-siting” is an important step. “And it’s when we are able to actually go in the field, go to each location where we are proposing a turbine. And we have with us our anthropologist, our biologist, our sound expert, our shadow expert, and construction experts and say ‘okay, this is where we are proposing it. What’s missing?’”

Credit windexchange.energy.gov

Montana says it’s also important to put the turbine in the right place to minimize bird and bat kills. She says they consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and stay away from wetlands and protected wooded areas. There’s technology in the works to shut down turbines when large flocks approach or during sensitive migration times. Montana says EDF is willing to work with companies and governments developing that technology, which she says is not commercially available.

Birds do die, and often gruesomely, when they hit the spinning blades. Bats too. And it’s hard to tell how many, according to Kathy Stelford. She’s the founder of Oaken Acres, a wildlife rehabilitation center in DeKalb County. That’s because there’s almost nothing left when a small bird or bat hits a turbine. Scavengers like coyotes and crows learn there’s plenty to eat under the towers. Stelford says she doesn’t even see wind turbines anymore when she’s near one of the area wind farms. She sees dead animals.

One of the birds that survived a turbine hit ended up at Oaken Acres.

Freedom Freddie
Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Freddie lives in a huge walk-in cage with low perches in a variety of sizes and textures so he doesn’t get “bumblefoot.” Oaken Acres operations director Sandy Woltman says that’s the bird equivalent of bedsores in humans. The young male bald eagle was dubbed Freedom Freddie by the people who found him sitting on a stump in their yard, not far from a turbine. Part of his wing had to be amputated, so he’ll never fly again. His rehab cost thousands already and now he’s a lifer at Oaken Acres -- learning to tolerate people so someday, he can be an ambassador for everything from wildlife rehabilitation to advances in wind energy.

Stelford says she thinks wind energy is great, but its time hasn’t come yet, at the industrial level. She says bladeless turbines are the future she wants to see.

“It at least doesn’t cause the noise, doesn’t cause the flicker, that is so problematic for some people,” Stelford ticked off the advantages. “It might even decrease the loss of property value. And in my case and in my bailiwick, it wouldn’t kill birds and bats.”

Wind projects and wind industry-related manufacturers in Illinois.
Credit American Wind Energy Association

EDF representative Shanelle Montana says turbine technology is always advancing, but the bladeless designs that exist aren’t viable for industrial wind energy. They produce kilowatts of power and companies are looking for megawatts to send to the electrical grid.

Cary Shepherd is policy director for the Illinois Environmental Council, a non-profit representing seventy environmental-related groups in the state. He says it comes down to cheaper energy with less reliance on coal and natural gas, which are known to destroy wildlife habitats.

“So it is possible there is somewhat of an offset in respect to bird and bat populations in our state,” Shepherd conceded. “But it’s important that we ask ourselves what’s best for our natural environment when we decide where our electricity should come from.”

Credit Susan Stephens / WNIJ

Last year, wind power made up 6.2% of Illinois’ in-state energy production. That’s the equivalent of a million homes being powered by wind, according to the American Wind Energy Association. To reach the Illinois goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025, there needs to be a boom in large-scale wind and solar. Shepherd says the state is on the right track, with “plenty of room left in Illinois to continue developing wind. We hope to see that development continue over the next 10 to 15 years.”

Large-scale wind energy production is a profitable business – companies continue to seek new sites for their farms even as federal and state subsidies begin to dry up. Retired Rock Valley College engineering and technology professor Tom Lombardo is now a freelance writer specializing in renewable energy. He says, “Almost all new technologies that can benefit society as a whole receive government subsidies to help them get started. Fossil fuels did, and still do, in fact. But even without subsidies, renewable energy, including wind, is becoming cost-competitive; even the fossil fuel companies know this.”

Lombardo says both solar and wind have their place in the renewable energy market: “Wind speeds tend to increase in the winter, while the solar resource is better in the summer, so the two complement each other. Solar doesn't fare quite as well as wind in Illinois, but it's still pretty good.” He says both are compatible with agriculture, but when it comes to siting, the lower-profile solar gardens offer another intriguing advantage: they can be placed over land that’s considered unsuitable for other things, such as landfills and abandoned coal mines.

In the next part of our series, Feeding the Grid, Guy Stephens looks at the regulations behind the race to establish more solar gardens in Illinois.