Cindy Blanc, 57, and her 61-year-old husband, Peter Minucci, are freelance musicians who moved to 5 acres in the countryside in south central Wisconsin for the scenic views and serenity.
Blanc leans against the glass door to her expansive backyard where they see a lot of wildlife, including owls.
“This is the best place to watch stars ever because there’s no light out here,” she said. “Now we’ll have … flashing lights.”
Blanc was referring to a plan for 24 wind turbines, nearly 500 feet tall, including one tower that she said would be 1,500 feet from the couple’s home in the town of Jefferson, a rural farming community of 1,200 people near the Illinois border in Green County.
On a February afternoon, Blanc and Minucci drive along a county road in their tan1999 Oldsmobile to a neighbor’s house to hand out yellow posters with the image of a wind turbine with a circle and red slash mark across it. The protest signs are in yards dotted throughout the town.
Blanc learned about plans in October for the wind project when EDF Renewables, the American subsidiary of a French company, sent her a notice in the mail.
EDF’s 65-megawatt Sugar River Wind Project would include 24 turbines spread over 5,870 acres. According to the company, the project would bring in more than $250,000 in tax revenue annually. It has the capacity to provide power for 20,000 homes, according to the pro-renewables group Renew Wisconsin.
The project reflects a reignited interest among wind developers in the state, according to Renew Wisconsin Policy Director Michael Vickerman.
Currently, wind power provides less than 3 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity.
The fight between residents and renewable energy is playing out in Wisconsin and other states as large wind and solar projects — which in some cases can produce electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants — have begun cropping up in rural areas.
Becoming a ‘wind warrior’
After receiving the notice, Blanc organized her neighbors to rally against the turbines. Under state law, projects are automatically approved after 90 days if a local municipality does not pass a wind ordinance to specify conditions for approval of the project, so the situation felt urgent.
She leaves the poster with a neighbor and gets back in the car.
“This is the exciting life of a wind warrior,” Blanc said, laughing. “But mostly I just sit around and like, write emails.”
Blanc said she is not anti-wind, she just does not think turbines should be close to residences.
They pull back into their own driveway and see their yard sign has fallen over.
“What’s the irony of it getting knocked over by the wind?” asked Blanc.
She is worried her property’s value will fall with wind turbines towering above it.
“We’re working musicians. We have no pension. We have no retirement. So this 5 acres and this janky old farm house, is like, it,” Blanc said. “This is what we’ve worked for our entire lives.”
Opponents seek wind limits
At an evening Jefferson Town Board meeting in late February, a roomful of more than 70 community members faced three town board members and the town attorney, at times booing and jeering.
The board was considering a possible wind ordinance after months of public pressure. Local governments cannot enact restrictions on wind projects that exceed the standards set out in the state’s wind energy siting law, Public Service Commission Rule 128.
Prior to the law’s enactment in 2012, some local governments blocked projects in their areas. PSC 128 was a way to provide predictability to the permitting process and help prevent impasses. Under the law, any local government that passes a wind ordinance gains the power to regulate, approve or reject a wind project, within the bounds set by the state.
Yet some residents, like Blanc, want the town to push the limits of the law and require setbacks from residences greater than the standard of 1,250 feet outlined in PSC 128 for properties not a part of the project. The town planning commission supported those changes.
But the town’s attorney, Daniel Bartholf, advised the board against challenging the law, as did an attorney for EDF. Ultimately, the Jefferson Town Board rejected the proposed ordinance. Board Chairman Harvey Mandel said in an interview that he did not want to approve an ordinance that would invite a lawsuit.
On several occasions, audience members shouted to the elected leaders that they would soon be out of office after spring elections. Two people stood to speak in favor of the project; about 10 people spoke against.
Health problems debated
In interviews before the meeting, some residents said they have heard people living close to turbines can be disturbed by the flashing shadows and low-frequency noise from the rotation of the blades, causing headaches, nausea, lost sleep and other health issues.
The World Health Organization has identified sound from wind turbines as a health risk, although it acknowledged “very little evidence is available about the adverse health effects of continuous exposure to wind turbine noise.” The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says there are no known health effects from windturbines.
In January, an expert panel reviewed scientific studies for a coalition of environmental groups, finding “little scientific evidence to support claims of health problems caused by wind turbines.”
Micah Bahr is a resident in the town of Kendall in Lafayette County, also near the Illinois border. He is a farmer who supports renewable energy; he has an array of solar panels next to his barn. But Bahr spoke against the Jefferson project at the meeting.
Bahr lives about three-fourths of a mile from a wind turbine. He believes it is giving him headaches, which vanish when he goes indoors.
“I was wondering why I was getting a headache,” he said in an interview at his farm. “Then it dawned on me that there was a ... a lull, humming type sound that was coming when the wind comes out of the south.”
EDF Development Director PJ Saliterman said in an interview that allegations of negative health effects are a “myth.”
“Too often fear and misinformation ... from web-based sources are used to drive wedges in communities in between neighbors,” he said.
Family feud over wind farm
It came as a surprise to Jim Bauman that his brother and neighbor, Brian Bauman, signed a lease to place a wind turbine and power station on his property in Juda, Wisconsin. That decision has put a crack in the bonds of an otherwise close family.
Not only is Jim upset, but so is his sister, Linda Kundert, who lives about 10 minutes away. She and her husband, Dan, along with their son, Brent, are dairy farmers who may soon live next to several towering wind turbines.
“We just never thought of this area as an industrial area, and the turbines kind of make it that,” she said.
The Kunderts fear they and their dairy cows will suffer health problems from the turbines. Jennifer Van Os, a UW-Madison assistant professor of dairy science, said she knows of no scientific research published on the effects of wind turbines on cattle.
“I’m tired of waking up with a knot in my stomach going through ranges of emotions,” Dan Kundert said. “Neighbors should not do this to neighbors, and above all, family should not do this to family.”
Brian Bauman did not return calls for an interview about his plans.
According to Vickerman, the average annual lease for hosting a turbine in Wisconsin is roughly $5,000 to $7,000 a year. Saliterman said the company will start off paying a total of $300,000 a year to landowners and neighbors, an amount it expects will increase.
EDF offered Jim and Kim Bauman a $1,500-a-year easement for the noise and vibration or other effects of the turbines. They declined to sign the contract.
Conflict of interest concerns arise
In the town of Jefferson, board member Lyle Samson along with Larry Eakins, a member of the planning commission, recused themselves from participating in the decision over the Sugar River Wind Project because they hold leases with EDF.
Mandel dismissed the suggestion of any unethical practices in the town’s handling of the wind project. He said it was “too bad” that critics have maligned the officials with leases, adding, “They’re good people.”
Samson declined to talk for the story, citing his recusal, and Eakins did not return a request for comment. EDF’s Saliterman said the company does not target local officials for leases.
“As you know, bad news travels much faster than good, and if we were messing up in other communities, you would hear about it,” Saliterman said.
On March 20, Mandel and the remaining town board member, Rick Nusbaum, decided against creating a local ordinance.
The Green County Board on March 12 passed its own wind ordinance in line with PSC 128. The county zoning department plans to review the project for approval. That decision can be appealed to the PSC.
In the April 2 election, both Mandel and Nusbaum kept their seats. Samson did not run for re-election.
‘Clean, free wind’
Not everyone in Jefferson opposes the project.
Tim Bender, a truck driver, and his wife, Linda, a stay-at-home mom, were among the few proponents willing to speak at the Jefferson Town Board meeting.
“I just can’t stand to sit back and watch an opportunity pass us by,” Tim Bender said.
The Benders have a “good neighbor” agreement with EDF. They would like to host a turbine too, but their property is too small.
Tim Bender said his support is not motivated by personal profit. He favors renewable energy because it is better for the environment than natural gas or coal.
“Why not benefit from clean, free wind?” he asked. “We have maybe three days out of the year when we don’t have wind. Why shouldn’t we benefit from it?”
Sarah Whites-Koditschek is a Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
Christa Westerberg provides legal services for the Center and EDF Renewables but was not involved in the reporting or editing of this story. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.