« 1/12/09 PSC approves Glacier Hills, admitting residents "will make sacrifices in many ways" -- | Main | 1/11/09 A tale of two windfarms and an extra 250 feet: PSC approves Glacier Hills Project AND Brown County Invenergy Ledge Wind Project moving "Full Speed Ahead" »

1/11/09 Why are residents living in the footprint of the just approved Glacier Hills wind farm worried? Ask our neighbors to the north.

Scroll down to next post to read about the Public Service Commission's Glacier Hills decision.

Patti Lienau said there is no way to escape the hum or flickering shadows from the turbines built by her father’s farm near Elkton, Minn. PHOTO: David Brewster, Star Tribune

Wind power takes a blow around Minnesota

David Brewster

Star Tribune [source]

January 11, 2009

ELKTON, MINN. -- Every sunny morning, shadows from the massive rotating blades swing across their breakfast table. The giant towers dominate the view from their deck. Noise from the turbines fills the silence that Dolores and Rudy Jech once enjoyed on their Minnesota farm.

"Rudy and I are retired, and we like to sit out on our deck," Dolores said. "And that darned thing is right across the road from us. It's an eyesore, it's noisy, and having so many of them there's a constant hum."

Just as they are being touted as a green, economical and job-producing energy source, wind farms in Minnesota are starting to get serious blowback. Across the state, people are opposing projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Opposition is also rising in other states. It's not likely to blow over quickly in Minnesota, which is the nation's fourth-largest producer of wind power and on track to double its 1,805-megawatt capacity in the next couple of years.

To be sure, many people who live more than half a mile from machines are not bothered by noise, and those with turbines on their property enjoy an economic windfall. They typically sign 30-year easements and receive up to $7,500 a year for each turbine on their land.

But the Jechs do not own the land across the road, where a turbine stands about 900 feet from their 100-year-old farm home east of Austin. Flickering shadows from the 122-foot blades make east-facing rooms seem as if someone is flipping a light switch for hours at a time. "We can pull our drapes, we can put earplugs in, or we can wear dark glasses, I guess, but it doesn't really make the problem go away," said their daughter Patti Lienau.

After complaining to the developer, they received two large evergreen trees to partly block the view, and $3,000 a year to compensate for the noise. But Lienau said that no money can restore tranquility for her "shell-shocked" 85-year-old father, who struggles with panic attacks and anxiety.

"I'm not against wind. They're going to put them up whether I like it or not," said Katie Troe, leader of Safe Wind for Freeborn County. "What we're asking is that every turbine be looked at and placed correctly."

Rural area not the same

The rising numbers of complaints have taken Minnesota regulators by surprise.

"I've been doing this for 14 years and people are raising issues I've never heard of," said Larry Hartman, manager of permitting in the state's Office of Energy Security.

For the most part, said Hartman, wind farms have been welcomed by struggling farmers and revenue-hungry counties. However, some projects are drawing fire, often from non-farmers who built country homes and commute to nearby cities.

"The rural area isn't what it used to be anymore," said Kevin Hammel, a dairy farmer about 9 miles east of Rochester, where wind developers are active.

Hammel supported wind generators initially, but changed his mind after a developer took him and a busload of neighbors to visit a wind farm. The tour made him feel like he was in an industrial park, he said. Yet others admire the sleek, graceful turbines with towers up to 325 feet tall, topped by generators the size of a bus.

Federal subsidies and state mandates for utilities to produce more electricity from renewable sources are accelerating wind farm development.

The nature of noise

Minnesota regulations require that wind turbines be at least 500 feet away from a residence, and more to make sure sounds do not exceed 50 decibels. In most cases, that amounts to at least 700 to 1,000 feet, depending upon the turbine's size, model and surrounding terrain. Whether 50 decibels is too loud depends upon individuals, who perceive sound differently, but it approximates light auto traffic at 50 feet, according to wind industry reports.

Critics say setback distances should be tripled or quadrupled. Nina Pierpoint, a New York physician who has examined the issue, describes "wind turbine syndrome" with symptoms that include sleep disturbance, ear pressure, vertigo, nausea, blurred vision, panic attacks and memory problems.

Last month, the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations released a report that reviewed those claims and said they lacked merit.

Rita Messing, a supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health, co-wrote a report last July to help guide the state on noise decisions.

Wind turbines emit a broad spectrum of sound, she said, including higher frequencies covered by state noise regulations and lower frequency sounds that are not. Her report does not recommend changes in the state noise rules, but notes that local governments can impose longer setbacks.

That needs to happen, said Tom Schulte, who's upset about a proposed wind farm near his new home in Goodhue County. "When I built this house, the county told me where to build: how far from my neighbor, how far from a fence line, how far from a feedlot, and out of 23 acres there wasn't a whole heck of a lot of land left where I could have put a house," Schulte said. "And yet somebody can plop a 400-foot-tall turbine 500 feet from my house and the county steps back and says they don't have any say about it."

Changes ahead?

The debate over noise and setbacks will drop into St. Paul this month when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission takes up the matter. Comments filed by 16 wind developers said the state's noise rules and setback distances do not need to be changed, that "shadow flicker" from rotating blades can be solved by better modeling and siting, and that there's no evidence that low-frequency sounds affect human health.

Others are not convinced and want Minnesota to reevaluate the rules. People who live near wind turbines are "experimental subjects, who have not given their informed consent to the risk of harm to which they may be exposed," said Per Anderson of Moorhead. He postponed plans to build a house on land near three proposed wind farms in Clay County.

Some people challenge the industry's claim that 50 decibels is no louder than light traffic or a refrigerator running. Brian Huggenvik, who owns 17 acres near a proposed wind farm 2 miles from Harmony, said he has driven to various wind farms and listened to the noise to judge for himself. Huggenvik, an airline pilot, said turbines can also produce a whining sound, similar in frequency to a jet engine idling on a taxiway, though not as loud. "It's not like living next to a highway with constant sound and your mind blocks it out," he said. "It's something that you just can't get used to. It is a different kind of sound."

Bill Grant, executive director of the Izaak Walton League's Midwest office, said that all energy sources impose certain costs and inconveniences. If there are legitimate conflicts about wind turbine noise and public health, the siting guidelines should be revised, he said.

But Grant cautioned against putting severe restrictions on a renewable industry that offers so many benefits. "What people who want to scale back wind are overlooking is the number of deaths that occur annually from air pollution from coal plants," he said.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend