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. 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.
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, Hartman said, 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 nine miles east of Rochester, Minn., 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.
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 heckuva 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.”
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 re-evaluate 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 two 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.”
• The state’s first wind farm was Kenetech Windpower’s 73 machines built in 1994, which produce 26 megawatts of power for Xcel Energy
• More than 60 wind farms have sprouted up in Minnesota with a total energy capacity of 1805 megawatts
• Today’s typical machines produce 1.5 megawatts each
Source: American Wind Energy Association