(This is the second in a series of stories on wind power in the U.S. We'll finish the series with a story of what's going on in North Dakota and locally.)
Despite a growing chorus of complaints, the U.S. wind industry has exploded during the past decade. Industrial turbines that once occupied mainly barren landscapes like California’s Mojave Desert now stretch from the western Plains to the rolling hills of New England.
By Emily Le Coz and Lucille Sherman
Despite a growing chorus of complaints, the U.S. wind industry has exploded during the past decade.
Industrial turbines that once occupied mainly barren landscapes like California’s Mojave Desert now stretch from the western Plains to the rolling hills of New England.
The majority straddle the Midwest, where average wind speeds clock higher and stronger inside a column snaking from the Texas panhandle north to the Dakotas.
Residents accustomed to unimpeded vistas of prairie grass and farmland now see massive turbines churning in the breeze.
“When we turn to the west now, we’re looking right at a forest of machines,” said Geoffrey Standing Bear, principal chief of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma.
Standing Bear is among hundreds of people nationwide who accuse the wind industry of ignoring widespread concerns about problems with its massive turbines and for generally disrupting their ways of life, according to a six-month GateHouse Media investigation.
GateHouse Media reached out to seven wind energy companies, including some of the nation’s largest, and two nonprofit groups that support the wind industry. Those representatives denied almost all of the investigation’s findings.
“We’ve had overwhelmingly more positive reaction to these projects than negative across the years and across the states,” said Mike Speerschneider, senior director of permitting policy and environmental affairs for the American Wind Energy Association in Washington DC.
That positive reaction has allowed the wind industry to more than triple its footprint in the past 10 years.
But not everyone supports it.
The Osage Nation has fought to block wind development on its ancestral lands, but its efforts failed to prevent construction of an 84-turbine project that started operations in 2015.
The tribe believes the turbines stand atop ancient burial grounds. They also say the structures violate their religious teachings, which hold the horizon as a sacred meeting place of heaven and earth.
They still worship the horizon in special, sunrise ceremonies. The turbines have ruined those gatherings, they said.
“It’s really a fight between those who want to take advantage of the money and those who believe they’re an eyesore and just interfere with a way of life,” Standing Bear said. “It’s not like Greenpeace versus the others. We’re Native Americans; we consider ourselves environmentalists as well.”
Ten years ago, just 300 wind farms comprising 15,000 turbines dotted the country, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Today, those numbers have swelled to more than 1,000 wind farms in 41 states representing over 53,000 turbines, EIA data show.
Only the Southeast, with its unfavorable wind conditions and lack of renewable energy targets, remains relatively free of industrial wind farms.
That’s starting to change. Newer, taller turbines can harness wind where old technology couldn’t. The first large-scale project in North Carolina went live last year – 104 turbines towering 500 feet now produce energy for the online retailer Amazon.
Developments like these catapulted wind energy’s contribution to the nation’s electrical grid. In 2007, wind provided less than 1 percent to the grid. In 2016, it rose to 5.6 percent. It’s estimated to reach 10 percent by the end of the decade.
Incentives and mandates
Two factors fueled the boom.
First, states began mandating electricity from green sources. Renewable Portfolio Standards require utilities to either purchase or produce anywhere from 2 to 55 percent of their power from renewable energy.
Twenty-nine states now have mandatory standards; eight others have voluntary targets. The majority passed after 2000.
Second, the federal government started incentivizing wind energy development with the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit in 1992.
Other programs followed, including the Investment Tax Credit, 1705 Energy Loan Guarantee, and Section 1603 Grants, all of which either started or expanded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
Wind companies will have benefited from an estimated $32 billion in Production Tax Credits alone between 2008, when the industry exploded, and 2020 when the program is phased out, according to data from the U.S. Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
Companies have received an additional $13 billion in Section 1603 payments since 2009, U.S. Treasury data show.
Although wind energy remains relatively new, its major developers are not. Established fuel titans like NextEra, Iberdrola, BP and Duke Energy are among the industry’s biggest players.
By bundling federal giveaways with state and local subsidies, companies can slash wind farm development costs by more than half.
Taxpayers funded nearly two-thirds of Caithness Energy’s Shepherds Flat Wind Farm. It has 338 turbines across 32,100 acres in northern Oregon.
The company received more than $1.2 billion in state and federal incentives for the $1.9 billion project, one of the largest in the nation.
Shepherds Flat was flagged in a memo to then-President Barack Obama by his advisors as an example of developers abusing the subsidies by “double dipping.”
The 2010 memo also noted the connection between tax incentives and wind development: Each time wind tax credits expired, industry investment slowed, only to resume upon their renewal.
The Production Tax Credit program will expire again – and potentially forever – in 2020. But it’s unlikely to slow the boom this time. Cheaper wind technology and increased demand for renewables will continue to drive the sector, said AWEA spokesman Evan Vaughn.
Forced to move
As the wind industry continues to expand, so do its critics.
Hundreds of residents nationwide have claimed industrial wind turbines make them sick. Several families say the structures have forced them from their homes.
Ed and Sue Hobart sold their retirement home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, after Notus Clean Energy erected a turbine near their property. They say it triggered nausea, dizziness, migraines and anxiety.
Dozens of other Falmouth residents reported similar symptoms to the town Board of Health.
“People don’t give up their homes for no reason,” Ed Hobart said, responding to claims the symptoms were all in his head. “It had financial and emotional and health impacts on me and my wife that we will never be fully recovered from.”
Jeff and Sandra Wolfe got sick after turbines from the Golden West Wind Energy Center started spinning near their property in Calhan, Colorado, the couple said.
The Wolfes moved 300 miles away to escape the tinnitus, headaches, anxiety and sleep disturbances they developed, said Sandra Wolfe. Three other families in the same wind farm told GateHouse Media they left their homes for the same reason.
Three families also left their homes in the Shirley Wind farm near Green Bay, Wisconsin, after complaining about numerous health issues and sleep problems they blamed on the eight-turbine project.
“We had to choose between our home and our health,” said Susan Ashley, the matriarch of one of those families. “We chose our health.”
Dozens of other residents also complained about Shirley Wind, so much so that the local board of health declared it a human health hazard in 2014.
“There is no question there are negative effects,” said Jay Tibbetts, a physician and member of the Brown County Board of Health.
Duke Energy, which owns Shirley Wind, disputes its turbines constitute a human health hazard.
“These are very common symptoms,” said Duke spokeswoman Tammie McGee. “They could be caused by anything.”
Unlike the wooden windmills of Holland, industrial turbines are sleek structures that can reach heights of a 50-story skyscraper. A single blade can surpass the wingspan of a Boeing 747.
Some turbines can generate a noise likened to the engine of a jet airplane that never lands, a whooshing roar or a rhythmic “whomp, whomp, whomp.”
The air-pressure change caused when their spinning blades pass their pedestals has been linked to migraines and sleep disturbances. In bats that fly too close, the effect can fatally burst the capillaries in their delicate lungs, killing them.
When the sun passes behind those blades, it creates a strobe-like phenomenon called shadow flicker that can disorient and nauseate those forced to live with it.
Shadow flicker forced Rod and Sandy Kok out of their ranch-style home in rural Randolph, Wisconsin.
The Koks had signed a lease agreement with NextEra subsidiary FPL Energy in 2004. In exchange for hosting an industrial wind turbine in their backyard, the retired couple would receive annual payments of $5,000.
FPL representatives said they would “barely notice” the massive structure, the Koks recalled.
They said Wisconsin-based WE Energies made the same claim after it purchased the wind development and land contracts from FPL in 2007.
But when the Glacier Hills Wind Park started operating in 2011, Sandy Kok said she developed nausea, headaches and vertigo from the persistent shadow flicker infiltrating nearly every room in the house.
The family logged 330 hours of the strobe-like effect the first year alone, according to a complaint filed with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
The flicker came not only from the turbine in their yard but from four others nearby. Sandy said she spent hours each day hiding in the basement until the sun shifted or the clouds came.
After the Koks discovered they couldn’t terminate the agreement, they begged WE Energies for relief.
The company tried several methods to mitigate the shadow flicker, but none of them worked to the couple’s satisfaction, according to a February 2013 Wisconsin Public Service Commission document.
WE Energies installed room-darkening shades on the family’s windows. The company also halted one of its turbines during the offending hours, but nearby turbines continued to spin and cast shadows.
WE Energies refused to stop the other turbines, estimating it would lose up to $76,000 annually in profits, the state record shows.
WE Energies eventually purchased the Kok’s home in November 2013 so the couple could move away. The Koks said they got a fair price, but they never wanted to leave in the first place. “It’s hard to talk about it,” Sandy said. “We try not to think about it anymore. But sometimes you go to these dark places. It still affects you.”
WE Energies spokeswoman Cathy Schulze said the company worked closely with the community and the state Public Service Commission on project development and turbine placement.
“We continue our commitment to being good neighbors, and work with any impacted homeowners one-on-one to mitigate concerns related to our operations,” Schulze said in an email.
Low-frequency sound waves from the Lake Winds Energy Park forced Cary and Karen Shineldecker to leave their home in Mason County, Michigan, the couple said.
The Shineldeckers had opposed Lake Winds prior to its construction; they worried about the effects its 56 turbines would have on nearby families, including their own.
Cary spoke at county meetings and urged local officials to pass tighter wind regulations, ones that would keep turbines away from his home.
His activism earned the family enemies in the community, especially among neighbors who signed up for the turbines, the couple said. They lost friends over the issue and believe someone poisoned their dogs in retaliation.
Despite Cary’s efforts, Consumers Energy erected four turbines within a half-mile of the family’s two-story farmhouse – the closet loomed less than 1,200 feet away.
The turbines began operating on Thanksgiving Day 2012, and the Shineldeckers immediately noticed problems, they said.
At first it was the noise – loud whistling and whooshing sounds. But soon they could feel thumping vibrations that resonated through the walls of their home like bass-heavy music from a distant, passing car.
This feeling, they said, bothered them during the day and kept them awake at night. They developed headaches, ear aches and pressure behind their eyes.
“You go months and months and months without sleep, and pretty soon, you’re not even the person you recognize,” Cary said. “I literally broke down and cried in front of people, and I’m not proud to say that.”
They took sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. They moved their bedroom into the basement to hide from the effects, but they still couldn’t escape.
The Shineldeckers didn’t suffer alone. Consumers Energy received 128 complaints about its wind farm in the first year of operation, according to Mason County records.
Consumers Energy spokesman Terry DeDoes repeatedly declined to answer questions for this story but emailed a written statement that touted the company’s renewable energy projects and community engagement.
After about two years living with the turbines, the Shineldeckers moved out. They stayed with a family friend until they could build a new house four miles away.
“It was emotionally devastating to be forced out of your house,” Cary said. “We moved to that house when our oldest son was 5 years old. It was a really nice place to live and raise a family.”