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Tilting at Wind Farms

The whirling turbines look like the future to cash-strapped farmers, but to some NIMBY types they just ruin the view.

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The view east from the front porch of the farmhouse where Bob and Sharon Bittner have lived since 1968 stretches for about 30 miles, taking in fields, windbreaks, and the occasional house and road as the land lazily drops a few hundred feet to the Illinois River near Hennepin. The ridge they live on, once traversed by Abraham Lincoln's regiment in the Black Hawk war and since 1836 the home of Bob Bittner's family, is the third-highest point in the state. Bald eagles nest within a few miles of the house, and in spring countless migratory birds and bats fly low over the ridge as they follow the Illinois River flyway they've used for thousands of years.

The ridge, deposited by retreating glaciers, curves through southern Bureau County 100 miles west of Chicago, mirroring a bend in the river. Distinctive as it is, it had no name of its own until three years ago. Stefan Noe is a 38-year-old attorney and former head of the Illinois office of Citizens for a Better Environment who sees wind energy as both a vital piece of America's energy future and a potentially profitable business. He was looking for a place to build the state's first wind farm, a cluster of turbines that would convert wind into electricity, and thought the moraine was a perfect site. He called it Crescent Ridge, and the name has stuck. Even the locals use it.

Some of the people in the townships where the wind farm would be built, Milo and Indiantown, have welcomed the project. Jim Albrecht owns more than 900 acres on the ridge, and 3 of the proposed 34 turbines are to go on his land. "I like the look of them," he says. "And as you look at them they're generating quite a lot of money for the landowners."

Noe's Chicago-based firm, Illinois Wind Energy, and its partner, Eurus Energy America, will pay Albrecht around $5,000 in annual lease fees for each one-acre turbine site--the 380-foot turbines have to be built hundreds of yards apart so they don't steal each other's wind. Albrecht says that grain prices have been at 20-year lows for the past four or five years, and his corn and soybeans have brought him only about $200 an acre.

The Bittners' five-acre parcel, all that remains of the 800-acre family farm they lost to foreclosure during the farm crisis of the early 80s, is too small for turbines, which local regulations state must be built away from roads and houses. But Noe's plans call for five turbines within an eighth of a mile of their house, to the north and the west. Looking a quarter mile west from their backyard to the highest line of the ridge, the Bittners will see most or all of the 34 turbines. Driving along the ridge in his SUV about half a mile west of his house, Bob Bittner points out the crumbled remains of the one-room Door Hill School, where he went from third through sixth grade. "They're going to put a construction staging area there," he says. Farther on he indicates a wooded area. "A northern harrier nests in that stand of timber." On the way back along Kentville Road he slows at an indistinct bump. "Right here you're at the top of the ridge," he says. "The Kellogg Trail, the route lead miners took to Galena [in the 1820s and '30s] was through here. I used to hunt ducks on the hilltop there. I know every inch of this ground. They're going to ruin it."

The Bittners' house was built in 1918 after the original family home burned. "We raised our three kids here, and this is supposed to be our old-age house," says Sharon. "We have everything on the first floor, all we would use--a shower with grab bars, a bedroom. What would we do? This was going to be our money. But mostly it's just because we love this house." Bob pulls out a photo of his daughter Jill, a San Francisco graphic artist, sitting in a swing in front of the house last September, surveying that 30-mile view. One of the turbines is supposed to be built about 1,200 feet off her left shoulder. "Jill cries when we visit with her about this," he says. "This is where our kids grew up and played and went to school."

Under the original plan the Bittners would also have seen two turbines from their front windows, but their opposition to the Crescent Ridge project persuaded local authorities to deny permits for them. "We did recognize that, yeah, these windmills were going to diminish his property, so we removed these two windmills that would be in front of him," says Ron Happach, chairman of the Bureau County board of supervisors. "But sometimes you have to say, this is for the common good, and we're going to do it even if it diminishes one person's property."

In January 2003 the county board voted to approve the permits for the Crescent Ridge turbines, which Noe's firm said would be selling power to ComEd by the end of the year. But within a month the Bittners and 16 other people had formed a group called Citizens Against Rural Exploitation to fight the project in court. They didn't win any rounds, but they kept the project on hold.

By early March 2004 everyone had dropped out of CARE except Bob Bittner--the judge had ordered CARE to put up a $250,000 bond to cover any losses Noe's firm suffered because of delays. Even Sharon Bittner pulled out. She has a partial interest in her family's farms and didn't want to put them at risk, though she's postponed retiring from her job as a high school English teacher so that her husband can afford to keep fighting. He has yet to pay the bond, but his attorney says he's prepared to take the case to the state supreme court.

Noe is confident the turbines will be built. He believes the great majority of people in and near the project's footprint favor it. "We had a favorable vote from the zoning board of appeals," he says. "The full Bureau County board voted 21 to 4 in favor of Crescent Ridge. The board member in whose district the facility will be was in support of it, and a write-in campaign to unseat him failed miserably. The Tiskilwa town board passed a resolution in favor of it, and the Indiantown and Milo township boards passed resolutions in favor. We printed 250 yard signs, and they were taken and put up by people all over the county. There is support for this project."

Happach says that at the outset many people in the county were skeptical, especially because the idea had come out of Chicago, "which is basically a different state from rural Illinois." But he says months of hearings gradually persuaded "the far majority that this is a win-win situation for Bureau County." Illinois Wind Energy will pay the county around $320,000 a year in property taxes, $200,000 of which will go to the local school district.

Bittner, a 64-year-old software consultant with an engineering degree who was once the school board's president, isn't impressed. "This wind farm is a boondoggle, period," he says. "There's no benefit to anyone but Stefan Noe and the landowners. And of those 14 landowners, only 2 live here year-round, and a third is here most of the year but goes to Florida for the winter."

In 1835 Bittner's great-great-grandfather, Caleb Cushing, and another pioneer took samples of the soil on the ridge back to Rhode Island to persuade members of the Pawtucket Emigrating Society that they'd found a fertile place for the members' new homes. Bittner still has the leather account box in which Cushing carried 72 families' money to buy the land. He says his family has been stewarding the land ever since. Sharon says her husband was among the first in the area to try soil-conserving methods back in the 60s and 70s, when they were still radical ideas. The Bittners' son Todd, a biologist for the state Department of Natural Resources, has planted most of the five-acre plot they still hold with grasses and other plants that would have grown there before the land was plowed. "Farmers are supposed to be stewards of the soil, and until this came along you could say all of them around here were stewards of the soil," says Bob. "This wind farm is a disruption--a dramatic disruption--of what we have out here."

Some people suggest that Bob Bittner, who's become a fixture at meetings and in the local paper arguing against the wind farm, has unspoken reasons for his opposition. At least nine of the turbine sites are on land his family used to own, and thousands of dollars in annual lease fees might have gone to him. "He's bitter about that," says one farmer who agreed to speak only if he weren't named. "Most of the neighborhood thinks that's why he wants to stop the rest of us from getting the money."

Bittner dismisses the idea, saying, "There are a hundred reasons that are more important than sour grapes." Among them is the way Illinois Wind Energy approached the project. He says it was all about securing deals without regard for the effect a wind farm might have on people near the turbines. Because their property couldn't be a turbine site, the Bittners didn't hear about the proposal until it was announced in the local newspapers in 2002. By then, some of their neighbors had already agreed to the lease terms.

Albrecht says he was "basically skeptical" when Noe first contacted him. "When you're approached by an attorney from Chicago," he says, laughing, "that's a red flag to start with." He spent three hours in Noe's Loop office--a bare-bones place with a few posters of turbines on smudged white walls and a window that overlooks a parking garage--and walked out convinced. "We found that he was a very honest man, and there'd be money for the farmers and tax revenue for the schools."

Noe says he got interested in wind energy because "it's clean and renewable energy, and when you generate wind power you're basically offsetting the use of other, more polluting types of energy. We're right at the beginning of its evolution in this country." We're way behind Germany and some other European countries, but according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), each year from 1998 to 2003 wind-power generation in the U.S. grew by an average of 24 percent. Wind farms in 30 states now generate enough power to supply about 1.9 million homes. Since 1992 the federal government has offered producers of alternative energy a massive tax credit. The feds and the state offer additional incentives intended to encourage big utilities such as ComEd to generate an increasing portion of their power from alternative sources, and Crescent Ridge would clearly help ComEd get green. Of course the electricity produced by the wind farm would simply be dumped into the larger grid, so it could end up being used in Bureau County as well as in Chicago.

When Noe left the nonprofit world in 2000 to start Illinois Wind Energy he hired consultants to help him find the most suitable locations in Illinois. Nearly all of the state is classified by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab as "marginal" in terms of wind-power potential, the second-lowest rating. Only a narrow band of Illinois between Quincy and Springfield gets a higher ranking, and it's just one step up at "fair." Most of the surface of Lake Michigan is class five, or "excellent."

The classifications are based on average wind speed. Class seven is the best. When he got into the game, Noe says, "the thinking in Illinois was the best you could do was class three, which is a difficult wind regime to develop on the utility scale. I felt like there were actually better resources in Illinois than that, that the studies had been looking at broad areas and not taking into consideration specific geological features." Like a glacial moraine whose top is 100 feet or more above the surrounding land.

Tests determined that Crescent Ridge's winds were class four, or "good." According to the AWEA, California is the nation's top wind-energy producer, with a maximum capacity of about 2,040 megawatts, or almost a third of the nation's 6,300 megawatts from wind. There, says Noe, "most of the projects are class four or class five."

In the midwest, says Noe, wind companies can offer their power to utilities for about 3.5 to 4 cents per kilowatt because a federal tax credit returns 1.8 cents of the total cost. He won't say how much ComEd would pay per kilowatt, though he will say that without the credit he can't make a profit. The credit makes his project "a good deal."

In 2001 Illinois Wind Energy and Eurus--a major international firm that has built wind farms in Spain, Japan, Italy, the UK, and California--signed the agreement to sell Crescent Ridge's power to ComEd. The wind farm would provide 51 megawatts--less than one percent of ComEd's total supply, though it would be enough power for around 20,000 homes.

"When we first read about this in the papers we tried to say, OK, what good could we get from this?" says Bob Bittner. "Maybe these big towers will protect us from lightning strikes or something. But we did our research and found that there's no benefit for anyone other than the landowners and Illinois Wind Energy." His other daughter, Elise Bittner-Mackin, a former Web editor for the Tribune who now works in communications for the American Hospital Association, went up to see a wind farm in Wisconsin. "She told us, 'You won't be able to live there anymore,'" says Sharon. Bittner-Mackin said the locals had numerous complaints--they were sick of hearing the turbines, they hated the visual "flicker" effect of the enormous blades spinning on the landscape, they'd watched birds get chewed up, and they'd seen property values within a mile and a half of the wind farm drop 26 percent.

The Bittners say they don't know how much their house and land, which haven't been appraised in a long time, are worth. But, says Sharon, "All around the world property values have gone down around wind farms. In Australia and England and Wales and Scotland--even in Denmark, where they make the turbines." She and Bob say a local real estate agent, Muriel Harmon, compiled strong evidence that land values drop after a wind farm is built, but Harmon declined to be interviewed.

My online research turned up no proof that property values around wind farms in this country fall, just lots of reports that people believe they will. The Bureau County supervisor of assessments, Tom Sweeney, likens the coming of the Crescent Ridge wind farm to two other developments in the area that people worried would sink property values: a huge new hog farm and a mushroom farm, both stinky operations. "People sniffed the air and said, 'Yeah, this will cost us 20 percent,'" he says. "And on the surface both of those strike you as things that will have a horrible effect on property values. But it turned out that neither of them did. Properties in those areas have either held fast or appreciated. Nothing has been hurt."

Happach and others say they figure the value of farmland with turbines ought to rise, because of the secure income they provide--though that wouldn't help people like the Bittners. Yet Dan Blanco, one of four county board members who voted against the turbines, says the issue isn't just land resale values but how people value the place they live. "Our ordinances in Bureau County say they were established to promote the health, safety, comfort, and general welfare of the people, and they clearly say that any new development or structures shouldn't harm the character of the area," he says. "That's a quiet agricultural area out there on that ridge. It devalues the property if you have to live in a jungle of turbines. You don't want to live in the shadow of one of those monsters, do you?"

The delays at Crescent Ridge have put Illinois Wind Energy in a bind. The federal tax credit expired on December 31, 2003. It was expected to be renewed through 2006, at a cost of $3.6 billion over ten years. But the legislation is hung up in Washington bickering, and election-year politics may make it difficult to renew until after November. Noe says there's no way he can build without the credit; the lack of a credit is one reason a half-dozen other wind-farm projects in the state are also on hold (one farm near Mendota managed to get up and running earlier this year).

Bob Bittner sees this as evidence that wind-farm development is more a money game than an earnest effort to reduce the country's dependence on fossil energy. In March, Glenn Schleede, a former federal official who lobbies Congress on tax issues, sent a letter to some senators urging them to kill the tax credit. "Government tax policies," he wrote, "are shifting the cost of building wind farms from the owners to ordinary taxpayers and electric customers."

Wind-energy developers are indeed the beneficiaries of big government subsidies, but they're just doing what nuclear-power and fossil-fuel developers have done for years. "Wind energy is definitely not a standout on subsidies," says Tyson Slocum, research director for the energy program at Public Citizen. "There was $4 billion in tax breaks to the fossil-fuel industries in fiscal 2002. That included $1.6 billion for oil and gas exploration and development costs--basically a subsidy to Exxon, Mobil, Marathon, and BP for their exploration." During the Clinton presidency, the U.S. Energy Information Administration published an annual estimate of all government subsidies and "interventions" that went to energy industries. The Bush administration decided to stop doing the reports, but the last one issued, for 1999, noted that a total of $6.19 billion in federal aid went to energy producers and programs. Natural gas got $1.6 billion, nuclear power $640 million, oil $276 million, and coal $489 million. Energy conservation got $276 million. "Focusing on tax subsidies as a reason to oppose wind energy is misplaced," says Slocum. "Right now the bulk of subsidies in the federal budget go to dirty, polluting, or dangerous forms of energy."

The question is, if as a nation we believe we need alternative fuels, should all of us pay--via tax breaks--to get some of those alternatives up and running rather than hope that the marketplace will eventually come through? Germany generates twice the wind power the U.S. does--a third of all the wind-generated energy in the world. According to the Tribune, part of the financing comes from charging every German household an average of $1.20 a month. Americans might be more willing to pay such a fee if they didn't see it going to wealthy investors such as Warren Buffet. His MidAmerican Energy wants to build a wind farm in Iowa that's over six times the size of Crescent Ridge, and Schleede points out that the company would be able to take a tax deduction of $193.8 million on the $323 million construction cost if the tax credit's extended.

Slocum also points out that generating energy from nuclear and fossil fuels has "additional long-term costs in terms of reduced air quality and human health" that are rarely counted when energy sources are compared. Among the hidden costs are asthma, cancer, and the disposal of nuclear waste. And the more we depend on nuclear and fossil fuels, the higher these costs go.

"We continue as a society to use more and more energy," Noe says. "As the demand grows, we need to continue to add sources of energy, we have to generate more. So we come up against the question of where that total energy comes from--renewable, or coal-fired, nuclear-fired, and gas-fired power plants. In the short term you're not going to have renewable energy substitute for those other types of energy generation, but at the same time I think you want to grow the renewable portion as much as possible."

So far, however, renewable sources of energy have barely slowed fossil fuel use. In 1999 the Energy Information Administration estimated that total energy consumption in this country would grow by 39 percent between 2000 and 2025. Over that period it saw renewable fuel sources increasing their share of the supply by less than one percentage point--from just under 3.5 percent of our energy to just under 4.5. "Under the current agenda of incentives and subsidies," says Slocum, "the growth of the renewables is going to be pretty negligible." In 2002 the U.S. Senate voted 70 to 29 to reject a plan to require all producers of energy to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020.

Still, Happach and others in Bureau County have become believers. "We are the world's biggest user of electricity and power in general," he says. "We have to increase the availability of this type of power. We have to keep up with the times."

Few people would argue that we shouldn't harvest wind power. Even Todd Bittner, a vehement opponent of Crescent Ridge, acknowledges that opposing the growth of renewable energy sources is a lot like, well, running against the wind. "I wrestled with the assumptions about the value of wind energy," he says. "The amount of energy this wind farm could produce for Chicago would be able to be offset by really small conservation approaches. If there's an environmentally benign energy approach, it's conservation rather than increasing production of any kind." But there's no need to point out to him that conservation isn't happening. Thirty years ago the first big energy crisis led to a flurry of conservation efforts, but no one seems to care much anymore. Fossil fuels are simply too cheap, the health care costs too easily ignored.

Todd Bittner admits that he's mouthing the classic NIMBY line when he says he thinks a wind farm would be fine--as long as it's somewhere other than behind the house where he grew up. "I'm sure there are places you can find," he says, "where it doesn't affect people and there's a minimization of its impact on other natural resources." Where would that be? "Well, if there are areas where all the people were willing to sign onto it," he says, his voice trailing off.

Bureau County supervisor Dan Blanco doesn't want to see Crescent Ridge built either, though he realizes that wind farms are going to get built somewhere. He thinks they should go where the people who will use their energy are. "Put them in Chicago if that's where the energy is going," he says. "Somebody at one of the hearings tried to say they look like kinetic sculpture. You could line Michigan Avenue with them near the art museum. How would your Mayor Daley like that?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.

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