Corn pours into Kelly Nieuwenhuis' combine grain tank this past fall as 20-plus mph winds keep two MidAmerican Energy wind turbines spinning in his field. The northwest-Iowa row-crop farmer, in effect, is harvesting two revenue streams, but the latter is a stable source.
"For the last four years, the turbines were the most profitable part of my farm," Nieuwenhuis claims as he maneuvers his combine around the base of one of the 262-foot towers. "I wish I had 10 of them."
It's been a struggle to make a profit growing corn and soybeans the past five years, the Primghar farmer contends. The annual lease payment from MidAmerican of about $25,000 -- use of about 2 acres of land for two turbines and infrastructure -- that started in 2017 provides needed revenue to help offset fluctuating commodity markets.
When 40 acres of prime farmland came up for sale three years ago next to his field with the two turbines, Nieuwenhuis says the steady revenue the twin towers offer provided him with the confidence to purchase the property.
"I've been real happy with the wind turbines since they've been built," he continues.
Despite Nieuwenhuis' favorable experience, there's plenty of opposition to wind energy. This includes farmers and non-farmers alike.
Opponents have banded together to stop wind farms under development and encourage governing bodies to pass or consider passing zoning ordinances that would effectively prevent future wind development. In some cases, the conflict results in litigation.
Critics generally believe wind turbines are noisy eyesores that reduce property values. They claim audible and inaudible noise (infrasound), and shadow flicker (caused when rotating turbine blades pass between the sun and a home) from turning turbine blades can cause sleep deprivation and other health issues such as headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, ear pressure or pain and vertigo.
"It all comes down to quality of life," says Matt Amos, a Reno County, Kansas, resident who opposes the Pretty Prairie Wind Farm project proposed in the county.
Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources signed leases several years ago with 69 Kansas landowners for the 82-turbine wind farm that covers about 45,000 acres. The project was put on hold in 2019 after Reno County Citizens for Quality of Life, of which Amos is a member, submitted a protest petition against the project to county leaders. As a result, the county's three commissioners had to vote unanimously to approve the project's conditional-use permit. One commissioner voted no, so the permit was denied. NextEra is challenging the validity of the petition in court.
"We understand landowners want to make money. Payments can help during lean years with crops," Amos says. "I admire farmers ... but we want our health and [property] rights protected, too."
Nieuwenhuis says commercial wind turbines operate in every direction from his house, with the closest being 1,200 feet away. He reports no ill health effects, such as dizziness or headaches, as a result.
"Some people say [commercial wind turbine] noise is an issue, but I don't even notice it," he adds.
Nieuwenhuis, like many landowners who have wind turbines on their land, sees opportunity in wind energy. The industry paid $1.6 billion in taxes and land-lease payments in 2020, according to American Clean Power (ACP), formerly the American Wind Energy Association.
Texas is the No. 1 wind energy generator. The state's landowners and taxing bodies annually receive $192 million and $285 million, respectively, in revenue.
"Wind energy provides farmers the chance to enhance revenue given the uncertainty of farming, and it generates taxes to help pay for essential services," says Jeff Danielson, ACP central states director. "That is the reason farm states have embraced it."
Property taxes from wind projects provide revenue for local schools, fire departments, law enforcement and more.
Bruce Dunahoo grows corn and soybeans on 440 acres near Zearing, Iowa. He has one wind turbine on his property, which is part of the 100-turbine Story County 1 Wind Farm, owned by NextEra. Dunahoo has earned more than $20,000 in six years since the lone turbine on his property has been operational.
"The pay is pretty good, but I see it as doing my part to help the environment," he says. "In the future, we will be relying on more green, safe energy."
The wind turbine on Dunahoo's land is located about 1,200 feet from his house. He reports no health issues from the turbine. Occasionally, Dunahoo notices shadow flicker in his house. But, he doesn't consider it a problem that window blinds can't address.
Wind energy has divided some rural communities. It pits supporters against residents who don't want to see turbines or hear the whooshing sound of rotating turbine blades -- some which are about 200 feet long. "It has created animosity, which is bad," Amos admits.
The small business owner and U.S. Marine Corps veteran built a house on 20 acres in southeast Reno County to get away from city noise and lights. Amos lost parts of both legs in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan and suffered two traumatic brain injuries.
Amos is concerned the flashing red safety lights on top of the nacelle (the gearbox on top of the tower) of turbines, shadow flicker and turbine noise would be detrimental to his health and property value. The closest turbine, if built, to Amos' house would be about a half-mile away.
Other members of the Reno citizens group, he says, share his concerns.
When the Pretty Prairie project was in the development phase, Amos says the citizens' group asked NextEra to do several things to alleviate concerns. Requests included turbines no closer than 3,000 feet or six times the turbine height from property lines of landowners not participating in the project and high-tech safety lights that only turn on when airplanes are near. NextEra proposed a setback distance of 2,000 feet from homes and wouldn't commit to the more expensive lights, Amos says.
"We live here, and we have something they want. I would think they would want to work with us," he continues.
NextEra spokesperson Conlan Kennedy says the company strives to work with lawmakers and residents in Reno County. He says it sites all of its wind projects to ensure the protection of public health. All local and state guidelines are followed.
He declined to comment about the future of the Pretty Prairie project because of pending litigation.
"I can't speculate on peoples' motives for opposing an industry that has brought great benefits to rural communities across the country," Kennedy says. "Based on our experience in many communities, wind energy still enjoys widespread support in Kansas and throughout the country."
A fierce battle rages in Madison County, Iowa, about the Arbor Hill Wind Farm, proposed by MidAmerican Energy. If built, it would consist of 52 turbines.
The Madison County Board of Supervisors, in a 2-1 vote, passed in December what some say is the most restrictive commercial wind energy ordinance in the nation. The county is known worldwide for its covered bridges made famous by Robert Waller's best-selling novel "The Bridges of Madison County" and movie of the same name starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.
Madison County's new ordinance caps the number of turbines in the county at 51 (the current number). It also requires that any new turbine erected must be 1.5 miles from a non-participating landowner's property line.
"To put it bluntly, it's an effective ban on wind energy," says Adam Jablonski, MidAmerican Energy vice president of resource development.
The company filed a lawsuit in January challenging the ordinance. MidAmerican argues it could build the Arbor Hill project because it received previous county approval, which withstood legal challenges from an opposition group.
Jablonski says MidAmerican is "evaluating" the project as the latest court battle continues. County supervisor Diane Fitch says board members can't comment due to ongoing litigation.
Mary and Roy Jobst, of rural Earlham, Iowa, hope the Arbor Hill project remains on the shelf. Even though they signed a development easement with MidAmerican in 2017, which means two turbines could be built on their property, the couple no longer wants to participate. They've asked MidAmerican to terminate the contract to no avail.
The Jobsts, who farm 360 acres, say they agreed to the easement without researching the negative health effects of wind turbines and considering neighbor dissension.
"It's the worst decision we ever made," Mary says. "We should have done our homework and sought legal advice. The money is not worth having [bad] neighbor relations."
She cites a Council of Canadian Academies report that says there's sufficient evidence that exposure to wind turbine noise causes annoyance among some people. The report also says there's limited evidence to establish a causal relationship between exposure to wind turbine noise and sleep disturbance.
However, the report also states the evidence is inadequate to come to any conclusion that exposure to wind turbine noise causes health issues such as fatigue, nausea and cardiovascular disease.
"It's misleading [for proponents] to make assertions that scientific studies have 'proven' that industrial wind turbines don't pose risks to human health," Mary says.
A joint statement from the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, the Common Good Iowa and the Iowa Environmental Council says "there is little evidence that sound from wind turbines represents a risk to human health."
ACP's Danielson continues, "There's no evidence wind turbines cause negative health effects beyond simple annoyance, or they result in a loss of property values."
FUTURE OF WIND ENERGY
Green energy is a priority of President Joe Biden's administration. Goals include a 100% clean-energy economy with zero-net carbon emissions by 2050 and decarbonizing the U.S. power sector by 2035.
To meet these goals, Danielson projects the U.S. will need about 120,000 wind turbines, which is double the current number.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says it costs, on average, $991,000 per megawatt (MW) to build a commercial wind turbine. Most commercial units exceed 2 MW.
"The wind is at our back ... the sky's the limit," Danielson asserts. "But, clean energy has to be a partnership between the local, state and federal level."
Local governments passing commercial wind energy ordinances that restrict development concerns the Iowa Conservative Energy Forum (ICEF). The group believes landowners have the right to utilize their property and profit from it as they see fit.
"We want folks to be able to look at the pluses and minuses of wind energy, and make decisions that best work for them," says Ray Gaesser, a farmer and ICEF chairman.
Judy and Steve Neal, of Madison County, filled out MidAmerican Energy's landowner interest form years ago with hopes of financially benefiting from wind turbines on family land. The extra income would come in handy, the retirees say. It would allow them to visit family in California more and help pay for grandkids' college educations.
The Neals fear both county leaders and the fierce opposition have dashed their hopes of a more financially secure future.
"Apparently, we only have the right to pay property taxes," Steve quips.
Judy adds, "I feel [county leaders] are dictating what we can and cannot do on our farm."
Wind Energy Contracts 101:
Experts familiar with commercial wind energy contracts recommend landowners consult with an attorney before they sign on the dotted line to allow wind turbines on their property. Wind energy companies may foot all or part of the legal fees, explains Mary Ludwig, an agricultural attorney and partner at Johnson and Taylor, in Pontiac, Illinois.
Ludwig has reviewed about 80 wind energy contracts for clients. Some agreements can be lengthy, up to 60 pages, and provide companies access to land for decades, she says. It's in the landowner's best interest to understand all provisions within a contract to protect their rights and property.
"Wind companies write contacts in their favor to protect their multimillion-dollar projects. That's why a landowner needs to have their own attorney review it," Ludwig explains. "A farmer may get paid for the use of their land, but they need to know how wind turbines could affect farm operations."
Here are eight points landowners should consider before signing a wind energy contract:
> It's important to understand the basic concepts of all lease and easement provisions and associated time periods. A contract typically includes an option agreement, operating option and option to extend. Lease agreements typically last 20 to 30 years but could be extended for decades more. If the land is sold, the new owner assumes the contract. Wind farm decommissioning provisions are also usually part of the contract, spelling out how the wind provider will remove turbines and infrastructure.
> Payment terms. Contracts could include options such as fixed payments, royalty or revenue-based payments, or a combination of both.
> Wind turbine and infrastructure placement. It's unlikely a company can pinpoint where construction will take place, if at all, when a landowner agrees to participate since siting studies and landowner participation are usually not complete, Ludwig says. However, she recommends farmers keep in contact with the land agent to get a "good feel" of the location, because it can affect farm operations.
> Detail how agricultural drainage tile and fencing will be repaired or replaced if damaged during construction. A landowner may want their own contractor to make repairs or supervise the wind company's contractor. Farmers may want GPS coordinates of tile repairs.
> Crop and soil-compaction damage. Both could occur during construction, and the latter could cause yield losses for years to come. Farmers may want to include provisions on how yield loss is calculated, time frames and what price is used to determine loss payments.
> Farming obstacles. Farmers can request electric transmission lines be buried and other structures associated with the wind farm be removed or placed in areas that don't impede farming activities.
> Existing infrastructure. Landowners can request the wind energy company keep existing roads, fences, culverts driveways, vegetation, etc., in good condition.
> Property taxes. A wind energy company often will pay the increase in property taxes for wind turbines, but landowners will want to make sure they are not stuck with the bill.
"Generally, I would say most of my clients are happy after entering into agreements with wind energy companies, but a few declined because they heard about bad experiences or could foresee possible issues with neighbors or other things," Ludwig says.
For More Information
> American Clean Power: www.cleanpower.org
> Resident Rights Coalition of Madison County: www.facebook.com/mccfsp
> MidAmerican Energy Co.: www.midamericanenergy.com/wind-energy
> NextEra Energy Resources: www.nexteraenergyresources.com/what-we-do/wind.html
> Reno County Citizens for Quality of Life: www.keepingrenoheavenly.org
> Follow Matthew Wilde on Twitter @progressivwilde
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