In Wisconsin, tilting at windmills is a serious matter
LEROY, WIS. — 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.
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.
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.
"We have landscapes of hundreds of thousands of acres, millions of acres, that used to be prairie, that would be reasonable sites for wind-power complexes," says Ron Klataske of Audubon of Kansas. "It would be tragic if they are placed in the last of the tallgrass prairie."
The Invenergy project in Wisconsin would occupy the uplands just east of Horicon Marsh, an area of family farms and scattered towns and hamlets. Except for cellphone towers, the tallest structures tend to be silos and church steeples. Many of the farm families date back to German immigrants who settled the region in the 19th century - and are a powerful political force. In recent years, however, nonfarmers have moved in, commuting to jobs as far away as Milwaukee.
The marsh covers 50 square miles - the same size as the wind project - and up to a million Canada geese stop there on their migration to and from Hudson Bay. Other birds frequent the marsh and nearby farmland, including several species threatened or endangered in Wisconsin: red-shouldered hawks, great egrets, and peregrine falcons.
Wildlife experts share residents' worry that turbines near the marsh - the nearest would stand 1.2 miles away - could kill large numbers of birds and disrupt feeding and migratory patterns. A draft environmental impact report by the state says studies about birds and turbines in other places are inconclusive, but faults Invenergy for inadequately studying local bird life.
"We don't have a good parallel model, and these things are massive," says Bill Volkert, a naturalist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "And we won't know until it's too late."
Oechsner, on the other hand, a fifth-generation farmer, isn't worried about the birds. "I've lived on a farm all my life," he says. "I know how animals adjust."
But birds are only one concern. Many residents worry about the noise of the turbines and the flickering produced by spinning blades against the sun. They also fear that turbines will mar the beauty of the countryside and lower property values.
"People just don't move out into the country to be placed in an industrial park," says Harold Johnson, the president of Brownsville, a village of 570 people near the center of the project.
Invenergy insists the turbines would hurt neither birds nor property values, though the state's draft environmental report concludes that it is "reasonable to expect" a property-value decline. Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, says wind farms may actually help preserve the rural landscape by helping farmers stay in farming. "It takes the pressure off farmers to section off land," he says.
Meanwhile, the proposal has divided the countryside. Donald Hill, a retired farmer, says he will "live a notch better" if Invenergy builds five turbines on his fields.
A mile away, Brian Vincent worries the turbines will ruin the area for his family, who moved to an old farmhouse 19 years ago for the "peacefulness." Invenergy's plan calls for a wind turbine less than 1000 feet from the house. "Ninety-five percent of people aren't going to get any benefits, just ill effects," says Mr. Vincent, who commutes to a job at a General Motors parts factory in Milwaukee.
Many here worry that differences will sharpen if the plan proceeds. Last month, two men were arrested for stealing signs opposing it. "It's caused a lot of ill feelings," says Iona Panzer, who lost two signs.
Mr. Vickerman says the conflict represents a wider "culture clash" between farmers and nonfarmers. Invenergy has gained broad support among farmers, he says, but he says it might have done more to build public support: "It would take a developer with a well developed sensitivity and political skills and attentiveness to detail to pull it off."
Critics say that wind energy is subject to little government regulation and that people have little say over whether they will live next door to giant turbines. "Probably the single most frustrating part of this is that the developers know they're not beholden to anybody," says Geoff Baker, a lawyer in Oak Park, Ill., who represents opponents of the Invenergy project.
Wisconsin's Public Service Commission has the final say over the project and may decide by July. In the meantime, Invenergy has won several small victories. Township officials in Leroy and Lomira recently agreed to allow the project, as did commissioners in Dodge County, one of the two counties involved.
"The farmers all seem to be in favor of it," says Linus Schraufnagel, a township supervisor in Leroy and a farmer himself. "They have the most at stake. It's going to bring a lot of business into the community. Not only that, we do need the clean energy. It seems about the best the way to go."