Tipton-Madison County wind farms raise questions
Indiana farmers feed millions of us each year. Now they're digging into "homegrown" energy.
13 Investigates uncovers a surge of wind farms that will soon fan across the state, promising an economic boost. But at what price to the environment and homeowners?
The winds of change are blowing across central Indiana.
"A lot of the farmers around here have signed up," said Tipton County Farmer Steve Pierce.
He's talking about his neighbors who have signed up to produce homegrown energy on the same fertile ground seeded to feed millions.
But the thought of miles of wind turbines soon sprouting up across the eastern edge of Tipton County isn't exactly the farming future Pierce had in mind.
"I'm going to sit here and hear a "swoosh, swoosh, swoosh," he told 13 Investigates about the turbines that will soon move near the land his family has been farming for more than 70 years.
"There's a 'whoosh,' as the blade passes the tower and sometimes a very faint discernable hum," confirmed Andy Melka, a spokesman for the developer E.ON Climate and Renewables.
Yet plans are humming right along for a 125 turbine-wind farm that will stretch from Tipton into western Madison County.
It's one of three wind farms potentially headed to Tipton County alone.
"It's all driven by the landowner, whether they're interested or not," explained Tipton County Commissioner Mike Cline.
What's the big draw?
Developers with E.ON say it's simple: high tension transmission lines to inject power into the electrical grid to sell.
"They will sell it wherever they can get the most money," said Cline.
"We certainly are not hiding the fact that this is a money making venture for us," Melka told 13 Investigates. He says a portion of the power generated has already been sold to Indiana & Michigan Electric.
But first, there must be wind.
"The wind seems to average around 7 to 7 1/2 meters per second. Which is somewhere on the order to 15 to 18 miles per hour," Melka said, explaining why Tipton County is a good choice.
For the last three years E.ON has set up four - "met towers" 260 feet up in the air to capture every wind gust, it's speed and direction.
According to Melka, it "will produce enough energy to equal about 60,000 average American homes."
The result, some say, are lucrative deals for the so-called Wildcat wind farm in Tipton County.
Commissioners signed a $1.2 million economic agreement with E.ON.
That's in addition to a property tax boost of $3.5 million over the next ten years. It will share another $8 million in road work.
"We expect [the roads] to be in better shape when the project is completed than they are currently," added Tipton County's Planning Commissioner Steve Edson.
What about the group of farmers who've agreed to lease a half acre for 30 years for a wind turbine?
Edson said E.ON's application projects a payout "between a half million to three quarters of a million dollars a year" to the farming partners.
Dan Delong signed up.
"The footprints are really small. It's not like they're going to make a big huge disruption in our farming ground," Dan told 13 Investigates.
He won't say exactly what he'll get paid, but apparently enough to make up for his lost crop and any trouble.
"At first we were apprehensive about something like that coming and changing the landscape of our area, but we went and visited some other counties that have had those in and talked to other farmers," he explained.
Steve Pierce talked to other farmers too. But he and his daughters who help farm their land don't think it's worth it.
"You give up possession of it, they can put roads where they want to, they can put the towers wherever they want to. It took a long time for us to get this land cleared," he said.
Pierce and others still question the environmental impact.
We put their questions to Andy Melka, who represents E.ON's North America Chicago office.
"Are these harmful to the environment?" 13 Investigates questioned.
"No. Unequivocally they are not. They do have impacts. No doubt that they have impacts. Birds will fly into them and be killed," said Melka who said studies have proven the impact to be minimal.
"We have 303 turbines in the air producing approximately 501 megawatts of wind power," said Connie Neininger, the Economic Development Director in White County, where the Meadow Lake Wind Farm has been a part of the landscape for years.
Neininger is the "go to" for many county leaders who want to see a viable wind farm operation up close. Tipton County officials toured White County to better understand the dynamics.
Neininger says their project has brought in a billion dollars of capital investment, with minimal impact on bird migration or livestock.
But there's no denying the huge change in the landscape.
"Not everyone is going to like the look," she admitted.
The turbines headed to Tipton and Madison Counties will be much like those in White County, but taller. From the base of the tower to the tip of the blade they will measure 490 feet high.
That's as tall as a 50-story building.
"It's definitely going to change the skyline," said Edson who believes it's one of the best economic development ideas for Tipton County.
But at certain times, the turbines will interrupt the view, even inside homes.
"The 'shadow flicker' as it's called, does happen. However it's a very limited time of the day," Melka conceded.
He's talking about the flicker of shadows homeowners find annoying, when sunlight hits the blade of the turbine and casts a dark line through their windows.
The solution Neininger says is to require bigger setbacks between turbines and homes.
Tipton County will have a setback of 1250 feet. That's little consolation to Steve Pierce.
"I will see them, yeah," he said. "I don't desire that no, they're in my back yard," he added.
13 Investigates asked E.ON's representative if it was moving ahead too fast.
"I don't think so," said Melka who believes wind farms are the best alternative to create clean energy.
"It's the food, it's the energy and one is not taking away from the other," added Neininger, who thinks both the crop farm and wind farm can co-exist, and bring growth to communities.
But for Pierce, the new trend is going to mean unwelcome change to his rural community for good. "It's going to be a lot different. Yes," he said resigned that there's little he can do to stop it.
Construction trailers are expected to move in early next year.
E.ON says the project will create up to 350 jobs through August when the turbines themselves are installed.
A dozen permanent workers will be hired to maintain the turbines on the wind farm, which is expected to cover 10,000 acres.
Tipton County also has a wind energy ordinance in place, detailing certain rules for operation. It includes a de-commissioning agreement that requires E.On to set aside bonds, to pay for the removal of the turbines if the project fails.