Willow Creek Wind Project Meets With Opposition

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Matt Rankin, President of Prairie Wind and Solar, speaking at the town hall meeting in Newell

A group of concerned citizens met in Newell, South Dakota Saturday to discuss a proposed wind farm in their area. Wind Quarry Operations LLC of Colorado has already filed an application with the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for the Willow Creek Wind Energy Facility.

The Willow Creek project is proposed to go in east of Newell to the north of Highway 212.  It would involve 45 turbines covering over 60 square miles of private land in Butte County.

Saturday’s town hall meeting, attended by approximately 25 people, featured a film called “Windfall” about the problems concerning a wind farm in New York, and there were featured speakers on hand to give presentations and answer questions from the audience.

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The 83 minute documentary “Windfall” examines the experience of Meredith, New York, a rural area where a wind farm was developed, and the problems encountered by that community

Winnie Peterson, president of WE-CARESD, was one of the featured speakers. Peterson told the audience that you could’t hear the sound of wind turbines until you got fairly close, but when you do, you hear the woosh-woosh sound, and about one-third of people will feel their ears pop due to the pressure changes in the air.  Other problems reported near wind farms include the unsettling environment with the rotating shadows caused by the rotating blades of the turbines, as well as glare from the sun off the turbine blades or from ice buildup on the blades.  Large chunks of ice being thrown off the blades has been reported in many locations, and turbine fires can be a problem also.

Source: SD PUC website

Source: SD PUC website (hover or click to enlarge)

According to Peterson, land owners typically sign 25-50 year leases with the development company, and usually the developer can cancel these leases at will, but the land owner cannot. Unfortunately for the land owner, these lease agreements usually bring restrictions on what they can build on their own land that might be tall enough to interfere with the flow of wind in the area, i.e. higher than about six feet. This could include restrictions on building shelters for livestock, as well as trees.

In response to those who wondered about local residents getting special access to low-cost electricity, Peterson said that nearby residents and businesses will not be directly hooked up to the wind farm, and there are no special deals on getting low cost energy from the wind farm. All energy generated from the wind farm goes into the general energy grid.

Peterson indicated that many developers seemed more interested in securing the tax breaks afforded to companies involved in renewable energy projects, than in the actual viability of the project itself.  She stated Beethoven Wind Farm near Tripp,  Wyoming cost about $140 million to build, and though it just came online in March, it has been sold three times already with the latest purchaser paying about $56 million for it.  The owners want to raise electric rates over 20% to pay for the wind farm.

The cost of wind energy is significantly higher than that generated by coal and natural gas plants. Germany ran far ahead of the United States down the path of “green energy,” and the Germans have recently started to put the breaks on.  The German Rhine-Westphalia Institute found wind energy can cost three times as much as fossil fuel plants. The Institute for Energy Research reported that since 2008, Germans have faced a significant markup in the price of kWh wind energy; in American terms, the rate increase would average a 19.4% boost in energy bills. According to some figures, if affected Americans saw the same increases faced by the Germans, people could see their $100 electric bill skyrocket to $600.  These additional rate costs are in addition to the amount of money the taxpayers are shelling out to subsidize “green energy.”

Matt Rankin, president of Prairie Wind and Solar, was another featured speaker. Rankin is a career electrician working in South Dakota and Wyoming who has been installing renewable energy since 1997. He has installed small, medium and large wind energy technology, and has also worked on communications towers for the Powder River B-1 electronic combat range.

Rankin said that due to the highly specialized work involved in wind energy, he believes claims of bringing jobs to the area are oversold since most people in the area are not prepared for the kind of work needed to build and maintain these facilities.

Rankin said wind farms are erected very fast, so the economic impact of the building project itself is of minimal benefit to the local area. Projects like this often involve cheap labor from out of state, and the legality of the presence of some workers in the United States may be very dubious. At best, the proposed project is likely to generate a half-dozen unskilled labor jobs from the Newell area during construction.

There also won’t be a local control facility in the area; control can be handled from anywhere in the world, and if repair or maintenance staff need to be sent out, they will likely come from out of state.

Rankin said that the turbines on wind farms also consume electricity in addition to generating it.  One of the challenges with wind energy is that the electrical grid into which the power flows can only take so much electricity at one time, so if wind is producing more electricity than is needed, the turbines must be braked. These brakes, as well as their monitoring and control mechanisms, consume electricity.

Also, when the wind dies down and wind turbines no longer have electricity to contribute to the grid, coal and natural gas plants have to be always ready to contribute more electricity to the grid to meet demand.  Because of this, we will never be able to completely get away from coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants.  Rankin also stated that the more the grid relies on wind energy, the more it will also rely on other forms of electrical generation to fill the gap when the winds die down.

Bernard Zuroff, an attorney from Denver, talked primarily about legal rights and civil suits. If a wind farm is developed near you, “nuisance law” allows you some recourse if you experience problems because of the farm. This “nuisance” can exist if something not on your property interferes with your private use and enjoyment of your land. The interference has to be substantial. Factors can include the size of the farm, noise, property values, etc. Often when pursuing a lawsuit against a wind farm, you may deal with shell companies that don’t have much in the way of financial resources, or the company that built the farm may have gone bankrupt and is no longer within legal reach anyway. Sometimes, complainants have sued the land owner who leased out their land for some of the turbines, simply because the land owner is the only entity the complainant can get to. Land owners can also be on the hook if someone else vandalizes the turbine; the wind company can hold the land owner resposible. There is also the question of liability if a turbine catches fire and starts a prairie fire–will the wind farm company take financial responsibility? High winds can cause the turbine to spin faster and need more braking, and if that gets too hot, it can cause a fire. Lightning strikes can also ignite the 200 gallons of hydraulic fluid in the turbine.

Additional concerns with the project include the fact that the turbines will almost certainly be visible from Bear Butte both day and night.  In addition to aesthetic considerations, Bear Butte is a site of considerable spiritual significance to the Native American community.

Then, of course, there are the costs to consumers and taxpayers for wind energy. Wind power typically costs more to produce than coal power plants, and you also have to consider the cost to the taxpayer in subsidies–a cost that Americans pay, even if it doesn’t show up on their electric bill.

As Warren Buffett stated last year, wind farms don’t make a lot of sense in the competitive free market.

“I will do anything that is basically covered by the law to reduce Berkshire’s tax rate,” Buffett told an audience in Omaha, Nebraska this weekend. “For example, on wind energy, we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit.”

Because of the wide variety of concerns regarding wind farms, this issue has often caused tremendous division in communities where wind farms have been proposed, causing rifts even among churches and families.

Concerned citizens in the Newell area have started a website to keep people informed on developments, as well as a Facebook page.  The organizers of Saturday’s town hall meeting encouraged concerned citizens to talk with their county commissioners as well as the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

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Bob Ellis has been the owner of media company Dakota Voice, LLC since 2005. He is a 10-year U.S. Air Force veteran, a political reporter and commentator for the past decade, and has been involved in numerous election and public policy campaigns for over 20 years. He was a founding member and board member of the Tea Party groups Citizens for Liberty and the South Dakota Tea Party Alliance. He lives in Rapid City, South Dakota with his wife and two children.
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