Between 300 and 400 people filled the Culver Elementary School gymnasium Saturday morning for what was billed as an informational meeting sponsored by Concerned Property Owners of Southern Marshall County, Indiana. The topic of the day has become a hot one in recent weeks and months in the area: the proposed placement of more than 60 400-plus foot wind turbines across several thousand acres in parts of Marshall and Fulton Counties by Florida based energy company Nextera. Three presenters detailed concerns raised by some in the area over the project, which was formally denounced by Culver's Parks and Recreation board recently.
Lake Maxinkuckee resident Mark Levett, who added he grew up in the Plymouth area, opened the event by noting the intent was "to represent facts and not get too emotional." He showed a map of the proposed area of some 17,000 acres and explained Nextera is owned by Florida Power and Light, "the largest operator of wind turbines in the U.S."
Levett also described the blades for each turbine as stretching from one end of the gymnasium to the other, and the towers as 45 stories high.
"They're visible for 10 miles," he said. "That's basically (comparable to skyscrapers in) downtown Indianapolis."
Levett said the turbines do not reduce power rates and while they "have a lot of green features...you don't have them unless they're subsidized.
"The average statistic is you need about 30 percent subsidies to make wind turbines viable. The industry has been around for 30 years and you still need a 30 percent subsidy."
He also pointed out two European countries are moving wind turbines offshore to avoid some of the complications they cause near human and animal residences.
"Reported symptoms (of those living near existing turbines) include headaches, blurred vision, nausea sleeplessness, ringing and buzzing in your ears, dizziness vertigo, memory and concentration problems, and depression. For every article that says there are no health effects, there's one that says there are."
Levett said Marshall County's present ordinances call for turbines to be placed 1,000 feet from homes, while he said doctors nationwide are recommending a distance of one and a half miles for safety. The impact on livestock from voltage surrounding the towers has also been controversial, he added, as has bird and bat kills by the blades, though he acknowledged the question of "how many is too many (killed)" is up for debate.
"There's no controversy about this," Levett said. "If you're in sight of a turbine, it causes you to lose land value -- six to 30 percent."
Prior to the meeting, as audience members filed in, a Youtube video showing "shadow flicker" effects inside and outside a home near an existing turbine was shown in rotation on the gymnasium's screen. Levett also showed photos taken at Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and nearby Lake Winnebago, where dozens of turbines were clearly visible.
"Those turbines are eight miles away," he said of the photos. He referenced a full-page advertisement published by Nextera in the August 11 Culver Citizen, which noted the company is moving its study area three miles to the east (further away from Lake Maxinkuckee). The move would still leave the turbines highly visible on the Lake Maxinkuckee skyline, according to Levett, who again referred to the Wisconsin photos as examples.
"This will be our new view from the lake," he said. "Get informed -- it's a big decision for Marshall County."
Steve Snyder, an attorney engaged by the event's sponsoring organization, detailed the county's procedures regarding the project, explaining the decision to accept or reject Nextera's proposal will ultimately be made by the Marshall County Board of Zoning Appeals, which he said is required by its own ordinances and state law to consider several factors in its determination.
First, Snyder explained, the project "can't be injurious to the public's health, safety, and welfare." It must meet development standards in the Marshall County zoning ordinances. It must not permanently injure property or uses in the vicinity, "which means," he added, "will it reduce property values? I would suggest the evidence is conclusive that you will see a drop on property values when your property is in visibility of one of these things."
Lastly, the project must be consistent with Marshall County's comprehensive plan, which Snyder said does not anticipate wind farms, and so isn't a serious consideration.
The BZA, he noted, must consider "every aspect of a project at a public hearing," which will take place after an application has been filed, which has not yet occurred in this case. He emphasized counter-evidence to that presented by the petitioner -- in this case Nextera -- should be presented in that hearing, though Nextera "has the burden of proving those four elements (required for the project's approval) I just discussed."
Setbacks from homes, said Snyder, are one factor to be considered.
"If somebody puts a tower up and you own a building site within a thousand feet,” he said, “you're prevented from building on your own land."
Other factors include security and noise, which is limited here to 55 decibels. Further, he said, a decommissioning plan is required for the project to prevent abandoned wind farms as exist in some parts of the country.
"Essentially you're looking at a minimum of one public hearing at which five members of the county commission will hear from Nextera."
Rounding out Saturday’s program was a detailed presentation from Roger McEowen, a professor in Agricultural Law at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, where he is also the Director of the ISU Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation.
McEowen encouraged the audience to read up on the details of his presentation as well as legal issues for landowners potentially negotiating a lease with wind companies, on the Center's website at www.calt.iastate.edu.
He primarily focused on the benefits and drawbacks on wind energy nationally and globally. Currently, he said, wind generates about one percent of the United States' power needs, though some have proposed that by 2020, six percent will be wind-derived.
"However," he added, "the U.S. Energy Administration's annual energy outlook for 2006 concluded that by 2030, wind power would supply no more than 1.2 percent of U.S. energy if current incentives and subsidies stay in place."
McEowen emphasized subsidies are driving the wind energy industry today, and questioned whether -- in light of present budgetary woes on the federal level -- those subsidies will hold out much longer.
Further, states like Iowa, California, Minnesota, Texas, and Kansas, some of the top wind energy production states at present, differ from Indiana in that each has large amounts of open space away from people, he said.
On a map McEowen showed from the U.S. Department of Energy depicting most and least viable locations to place wind farms, some parts of Indiana were rated "fair" for placement, but the local area designated for placement was blank, ranking it of dubious viability.
When asked why a company would choose to build here under such conditions, McEowen noted Marshall County has "good access to the (energy distribution grid)."
He also suggested the company will profit because of subsidies offered per kilowatt hour for wind generated.
McEowen described motives for the current push for wind energy development nationally, including improvements in the industry's technology, high fuel prices, mandates in 29 states requiring certain amounts of generated energy to be renewable, difficulty in launching new coal-fired power projects, and financial viability of wind projects due to tax credits and other subsidies.
He refuted the claim that wind energy makes the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. Petroleum, he said, only generates eight tenths of one percent of American electrical power. Instead, most domestic electricity comes from coal, natural gas, and nuclear power.
The wind industry wouldn't exist, McEowen said, without federal incentives, and the income tax credit per kilowatt hour for electricity produced by a qualified wind facility is 2.2 cents. Many states also subsidize wind energy, he said, alongside reductions or exemptions from state or local property sales and other taxes.
Some states, such as Wyoming, McEowen noted, are taxing wind companies due to the full "social cost" of wind farms to taxpayers, ranging from road construction and repair to police and fire protection related to the farms.
While wind farms do create jobs, McEowen added, since most jobs are due to government subsidies, the net effect is simply a shift from non-subsidized labor to subsidized, rather than creation of genuinely "new" jobs.
"When Spain reduced its alternative energy subsidies," he said, "thousands of jobs were lost."
Also discussed was whether industrial wind farms constitute "the next generation of nuisance lawsuits." McEowen detailed possible legal claims from neighbors of wind turbine-hosting land, ranging from ice throws when blades -- which can spin at more than 150 miles per hour -- ice up, to malfunction or lightning strike-rooted fires, interference with radio or TV signals, to aforementioned health impacts on adjacent landowners. He cited several studies on the health effects of the turbines.
Most courts, he emphasized will only recognize nuisance claims after the towers have been installed, rather than in an anticipatory manner. Instead, it was noted the local legislative process is the best manner to address concerns before wind farm placement.
Property values have been shown to be negatively impacted by proximity to the turbines in some studies, McEowen said, by 10 to 30 percent.
"All this is related to how close these are to your home or business," he added. "Does this part of the country have enough open space to get these away from people?"
Among topics discussed in a question and answer session near the close of the program included potential conflict of interest for any members of the county's BZA, something Snyder said is required to be disclosed by county and state statute.
"Typically, (conflict of interest) means there's financial benefit flowing to one who votes that could affect his decision," he added.
Also discussed was the effect of the farms on Doppler radar for weather predictions. One group member said a wind farm near Lafayette, Indiana, causes the appearance of a major storm to be constant on radar-based weather maps, creating "trouble predicting tornadoes."