Controversy swirls around wind farm

Tradewind Energy promises DeWitt County tax revenue, but residents worry about 'quality of life'

 Wind turbines line up alongside an old barn in Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons/Dori)

Wind turbines line up alongside an old barn in Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons/Dori)

By Ted Cox

Controversy is swirling over a proposed new wind farm northwest of Clinton in central Illinois.

Kansas-based Tradewind Energy hopes to place more than 100 energy-generating wind turbines in what it calls the Alta Farms II project in DeWitt County. The project area stretches across 24,000 acres between Waynesville and Wapella and could eventually involve 200 landowners.

Project Developer Tom Swierczewski said it's projected to provide $30 million in tax revenue over 20 years, with the same amount in rent payments to local landowners. Projections are it would provide $3 million a year in county property taxes to an area that just lost a local Walmart, although he added that was based on the full project of up to 120 turbines generating 344 megawatts. The first phase of the project, generating 200 megawatts, would provide about $2 million a year.

"It's still a very significant dollar amount," Swierczewski said. "So, yeah, it's an extremely beneficial project for the local economy. It's one that the farmers and the majority of the community are very supportive of." 

But not everyone. More than 1,000 people have joined a Facebook group called DeWitt County Residents Against Wind Turbines, and they've rallied opposition.

"A big number of people in the community have real concerns about it," said Andrea Rhoades of Kenney, one of the organizers of the group.

Although Swierczewski said the project has been on the drawing board for 10 years before being tabled by the Great Recession and revived a few years ago, Rhoades said it was only last October that local residents really got wind of it.

Rhoades said her main issues are noise, "shadow flicker," meaning the persistent play of shadows beneath and behind the rotating turbine blades, and a resulting decrease in property value. Others have raised concerns about interrupted sight lines on the horizon and difficulties in crop dusting.

The battleground has been the DeWitt County Board. Opponents are challenging changes or proposing their own changes to local zoning laws regarding wind farms. Those have to be established before Tradewind Energy begins applying for a special-use permit allowing the wind farm to actually get started.

Meetings of the Regional Plan Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals have been well-attended by people on both sides and contentious. At this point, the full County Board has a special meeting set for Aug. 22, a day before its regularly scheduled meeting, just to deal with the wind-farm zoning laws.

"We've had a lot of really long meetings recently," Rhoades said, "so I think they decided to hold a special meeting for that."

Three measures on the table include increasing the setback — the space required between the turbine and the property line — to 1,640 feet, which should address most concerns about shadow flicker, although that and the red blinking lights for aircraft detection are also up for debate.

"All three of those really speak to safety and the quality of life for residents who have to live near the turbines," Rhoades said.

She added that it also would commit an area between Bloomington-Normal and Decatur to minimal residential development in the decades to come.

"I'm really worried that this is going to handcuff us from a development perspective in the future," Rhoades said. "This is a 40-year project, and anywhere we place these wind turbines nothing else can come in."

 Wind turbines rise in the distance between central Illinois cornfields. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Wind turbines rise in the distance between central Illinois cornfields. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Even so, wind proponents point out it's an investment in renewable energy at a time when Illinois — and the rest of the world — is increasingly feeling the effects of climate change. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Illinois ranks sixth in the nation with 2,632 turbines generating 4,464 megawatts a year or 6.2 percent of the state's energy needs, enough to power over 1 million homes. It also employs more than 5,000 people with annual land-lease payments of between $10 and $15 million, with considerable savings in water and carbon-dioxide emissions compared with nuclear and fossil-fuel energy sources.

Alta Farms II is Tradewind Energy's first Illinois wind-farm project, and Swierczewski attributed it to "a clearly robust wind and relatively high power prices compared to other states, primarily to the east, which is where this power is being shipped.

"It's been great for Illinois," he added. "It's been great for central Illinois."

"This is not us saying renewable energy is a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination," Rhoades said. "We are just mainly concerned about the project as a whole and how it's going to impact the day-to-day lives of those who actually have to live around it."

Tradewind will first have to agree to whatever zoning laws the DeWitt County adopts later this month, then fight through opposition again for the actual special-use permit to allow the project to go forward.

"That's a whole separate process," Rhoades said.