Wind Energy Isn’t a Breeze – Farmers near wind turbines face (sometimes literal) headaches. [excerpts]
AUG 24, 2017 | Leah Mcbride Mensching | slate.com
Nearly 175 years ago, Lana Wanders’ ancestors settled in what would soon become the state of Iowa. The farm served as a stopping point for people heading west who had run out of money. Her forefathers would rent a piece of land to them for up to five years, so they could farm and earn a living to pay for their continued journey. “It was a handshake agreement,” she says while we sit on the porch of her classic white farmhouse, tucked just off a sloping gravel road between Pella and New Sharon in the southeastern part of the state.
But the land deals in this area today aren’t so straightforward and honest, she says. Wind development company RPM Access is currently constructing one of MidAmerican Energy’s newest projects, Prairie Wind Farm, less than two miles east of her home. Residents did not have the opportunity to vote on the project, which was approved by the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors. When residents have no recourse, and no government body to turn to for representation, it’s frustrating and even kind of scary. (MidAmerican Energy declined to comment on this story.) “We have nothing to fight with,” she says. “We don’t know where to go, we don’t know what to do. To us it seems like they just kind of slid in the back door and there’s just nothing we can do about it.”
There’s a common theme in feel-good news stories about wind energy: a renewable energy source coming to the rescue of poor rural folk in the form of rent payments and tax revenues. But life on the ground around the 4,000 turbines in Iowa is complicated, and the experiences of the people living near them varies, usually depending on how close to turbines they live and work, the size of the wind farm, and who built it. The rapidly changing pace of technology, a dearth of regulation, and close ties between for-profit energy companies and state and federal governments handing out billions of dollars in production tax credits has created a system in which residents often feel left out of what’s happening in—sometimes literally—their own backyards.
From the outside, it looks like turbines are popping up in the middle of nowhere. But for those living in the country, the turbines loom over their properties, replacing their bucolic homes with an industrial energy landscape. And fields are their workplaces. A turbine doesn’t affect just the few acres surrounding it: It has an impact on the entire farm it sits on, as well as neighboring farms.
Building and maintaining a turbine requires heavy equipment that damages tiles under fields, which affects drainage in surrounding fields. Drainage problems can hurt crop yields and even stop a farmer from being able to plant in the first place. A turbine also makes it more difficult, or sometimes impossible, for crop dusters to fly over fields around it in order to spray pesticides that protect their crops. Farmers also have concerns about their own safety, and the safety of the people they hire. Reports of turbines catching fire and throwingice, even blades breaking off, cause farmers to worry. There are also issues of shadow flicker and the noise turbines can make, which aren’t just annoying—they can even make people feel sick. (There isn’t yet much research on the potential health effects of living near wind farms, and some suggest “wind turbine syndrome” might be psychogenic—though that wouldn’t mean people aren’t experiencing real symptoms.)
Farmers feel outnumbered and out financed by powerful energy companies, government officials, and green energy advocates, all of whom they say have incentive to ignore their problems. The key word here is setbacks, which is the distance turbines must be kept from occupied buildings, property lines, and roads. Farmers say if they had input on setbacks or could vote on where turbines were built, many of their problems would be minimized or eliminated altogether.
When they try to express concerns, farmers often face an accusation from those living far away: that they are climate change deniers. Terry McGovern, a professor of management at Clarke University in Dubuque and retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, has grown frustrated by this dynamic. He says that if you ask, “ ‘Does it work? Is it efficient? Does it make sense? Is it our best option?’ … you’re branded as someone who’s anti-environment.” Though he is an independent voter, he says that questioning wind energy means that “people will associate you with Republicans or with the Trump campaign, anti-environment, [but] nothing could be further from the truth.”
McGovern lives on an acreage near three turbines and says he was very supportive when he first heard of plans to install wind turbines in the area. McGovern became skeptical, however, after a neighbor came to him with concerns about a wind developer’s proposition. He started researching the industry, and the more he learned, the more concerned he became. He now helps residents organize against wind companies.
For residents, big wind companies often don’t feel like neighbors; they seem more like overlords. Wind energy news stories tend to use the word lease, but in reality, “They want easement to your whole farm,” Randy Roghair says. It is typical for wind developers to lease the land a turbine stands on, as well as have easements that give them additional rights. Easements usually include giving the developer the right to lay cables that connect the turbine to substations and the power grid; the right to use nonleased land in order to access the leased land to build, operate, and maintain the turbine; and the right to prevent landowners from doing anything on their property that may block the wind. That can include planting a tree or building a shed. Easements also give the developer the right to “produce noise, shadow flicker, radio interference, vibrations or other impacts” relating to a turbine’s operation, according to Pace Law School.
Farmers say although they understand the companies need full access to their investments in order to ensure their projects run smoothly, it gives them too much control over the land and the people who work it. “It’s not just an easement for your access road and this little bit here around these wind towers. It’s the whole farm they’ve got easement to,” he says. “So now there’s a clause in there that says we can’t plant a tree, build a building anywhere on that farm they’ve got easement to, because it might affect the wind.”
He and his wife, Alice, said people approached by wind developers didn’t understand how much power the wind companies would have over the land and the people working it. In many cases, people signed easements years before turbines actually started going up, and technology changed in that time. So the turbines built were much bigger than anyone had ever seen when they signed on the dotted line.