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In Wisconsin, tilting at windmills is a serious matter

By Richard MertensCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2005


Dairy farmer Dennis Oechsner cocks his head and squints upward as 200 Canada geese pass overhead on a brilliant spring afternoon. Across the fields, flocks in ragged Vs mark the start of a migration that will bring hundreds of thousands of geese through the area before summer.

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Birds, including threatened and endangered species, are at the center of a dispute over a $250 million wind-turbine complex that a Chicago company wants to build in east central Wisconsin. Invenergy Wind LLC hopes to erect 133 turbines, each standing 389 feet tall, across 50 square miles of farmland just east of Horicon Marsh, a federal and state wildlife refuge described by bird experts as one of the largest and most important wetlands in the Midwest.

Many farmers have embraced the plan. Scores would profit from turbines on their land, including Mr. Oechsner, who, together with his father and brother, would earn $46,200 from 11 turbines on the 750 acres they own in common. But others say the turbines will harm the birds that descend upon the marsh each spring and fall.

"I'm not anti-wind energy," says Joe Breaden, a high school biology teacher who heads Horicon Marsh System Advocates, a group fighting the plan. "I'm anti-location. You've got to be a little scrambled in the head to put 133 400-foot tall egg beaters next to a place where hundreds of thousands of birds come in."

Wind energy is booming. Although it accounts for less than 0.5 percent of electrical power in the US, energy companies are building new wind projects at an unprecedented rate. The American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, estimates that wind power could grow by 30 percent this year. If all the wind farms planned for the Midwest are built, they would multiply the region's wind power eight times over.

Wind power is widely seen as a clean, renewable energy source and a sensible alternative to coal, the largest source of electricity in the US. But in Wisconsin and elsewhere, residents are questioning the effect on the landscape, on property values, and on wildlife, especially birds and bats.

"We have a bias in favor of wind energy," says Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. "The key thing is siting. We want them to be kept away from important areas. And Horicon Marsh is about as important a bird area as you can find."

Experts say wind energy is flourishing in part because turbines are getting bigger and more efficient. The typical wind turbine stands 40 stories high and can generate as much as two megawatts of electricity, enough to light about 540 households. The scale of wind farms is growing, too. The Invenergy project in Wisconsin, with a capacity of 200 megawatts, would straddle two counties and parts of four townships.

Federal and state governments also are pushing renewable energy. Eighteen states are setting ambitious goals requiring utilities to buy a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. A still more powerful incentive for energy companies is a federal tax credit that can make up 25 to 30 percent of the cost of producing wind energy in Wisconsin, and more in states with stronger winds, according to RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit public-interest group in Madison.

Eyesores and wildlife: the opposition

Many wind farms go up with little or no opposition. One of the largest in the US extends across miles of corn and soybean fields in northern Iowa, just outside the town of Storm Lake. Gary Lalone, who promotes development there, says the 380 turbines have helped farmers, increased the tax base, created dozens of jobs, and lured tourists.

Elsewhere, resistance has been stiff. In Massachusetts, a citizens group has been fighting since 2001 to stop 130 turbines from going up in Nantucket Sound. In New Jersey, acting Gov. Richard Codey in December imposed a 15-month moratorium on coastal wind-energy developments while a commission studies their effect on marine life, tourism, and views. "There are many people who live along the coastline that are concerned about the aesthetics of these things," says Kelley Heck, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Concerned that turbines on mountain ridges were eyesores and a threat to wildlife, Reps. Nick Radall and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia last June asked the General Accounting Office to study wind projects in the Appalachians. In California an environmental group has sued over wind turbines outside San Francisco that scientists say have killed tens of thousands of raptors. And in Kansas, environmentalists are trying to stop a wind farm in the Flint Hills, the largest expanse of tallgrass prairie in the US.