HOPE — An airplane that never takes off. A diesel truck idling. An interstate highway. Tennis shoes thumping in a dryer.
That's how several Vermilion County residents who live in the California Ridge wind project describe the various noises from wind turbines near their homes.
"Sometimes it sounds like a plane that never leaves ... other times like a diesel pickup or semi parked outside, and it idles all night. It depends on the wind direction," said Jeremy Lomax, a Vermilion County resident in the California Ridge wind project who, along with several other wind farm residents, is lobbying the Vermilion County Board to increase the distance a wind turbine can be built from the foundation of a house.
According to Lomax, Ted and Jessica Hartke, Jean and David Miles and Gina Isabelli — who all live within the project area — noise and shadow flicker from the turbines ranges from tolerable some days and nights when the wind isn't blowing to severe other days and nights and affects either their quality of life, health or both in various ways.
It's a familiar scenario playing out in other parts of the state, the nation, even the world — people living near wind turbines are voicing concerns about noise, shadow flicker, declining property values and other issues with this clean renewable energy source that the U.S. Department of Energy claims can provide 20 percent of the nation's electricity by 2030 and reduce projected emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, by 25 percent.
Just last week, the Iroquois County Board significantly increased its setback of 1,500 feet between turbines and houses of nonparticipating landowners — those without a wind turbine lease.
The new setback is now 12 times the rotor diameter, which would be about 3,936 feet for a 1.7-megawatt GE turbine with a rotor diameter of 328 feet.
Iroquois also approved noise limits on the turbines, along with a requirement that wind farm developers prove shadow flicker would not affect nonparticipating landowners who live within one mile of a turbine.
Residents within the California Ridge wind project voiced their concerns along with Iroquois County residents facing the same issues.
Iroquois County Board member Charles Alt voted for the changes to the county's wind ordinance. He said they were prompted by complaints from residents in the county, not only about noise from the turbines but also other issues, like road agreements with the wind companies.
Alt said there were also residents who argued against the changes, including landowners in the Wellington and Hoopeston area who have the possibility of leasing their land for a future wind farm development. Alt said that development may not happen now due to the changes.
"It seems like the controversy on wind energy is growing," he said, explaining that those with wind turbines on their property generally are okay with them, but others who live nearby are having issues. "We have to think about everybody in the county."
Alt said the effects of wind turbine noise and other issues is still a big question. But there have been residents from within all the area wind farms voicing concerns with noise and other issues. He said not all their stories are the same, but they are close, and he can't believe they are all making it up. He said the wind companies disagree with such claims, and board members have challenged them for proof.
"And I can't see why we should OK something that draws this much controversy from people who don't have anything to do with them," Alt said.
In Vermilion County, the board increased its setbacks two years ago from 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet. A proposal earlier this year from county board member Chuck Nesbitt to increase the setbacks even more, to 1,320 feet from a property line and 2,640 feet from the closest primary structure, did not gain support from an independent panel, which recommended no action to the county board.
But residents from the California Ridge project have not given up and continue to lobby Vermilion County for increased setbacks. Vermilion County officials argue that a 1,320 feet setback would eliminate such large sections of land from consideration for a wind turbine that it would effectively be a ban on future wind farm development.
Online for about a year now, the California Ridge wind project was developed by Chicago-based Invenergy and is the first wind farm in Vermilion and Champaign counties, stretching from western Vermilion, where there are 104 turbines, mostly in Pilot Township, to eastern Champaign, where there are 30 turbines.
Mostly rural, Pilot has a population of about 580 people, and many homes have wind turbines nearby. But more than a dozen residents there, including Lomax, the Hartkes, the Mileses and Isabelli, have put up vinyl signs on their properties with messages railing against the wind farm. One says "Welcome to wind turbine hell; home of the noisy turbines."
Earlier this year in response to wind turbine complaints, the Vermilion County Board organized a public hearing. Residents packed the Potomac Grade School gym. About half of the comments championed the construction jobs and income for local business from the wind farm in addition to rebuilt local roads and local property tax revenue it will generate for schools and other taxing bodies. But the other half of the comments came from the Hartkes, Lomaxes and other residents upset about noise, shadow flicker and other issues.
The controversy doesn't seem to be swirling in Champaign County, where the setback requirement is the same as in Vermilion: a minimum 1,200 feet from a wind turbine to the house of a nonparticipating landowner. John Hall, Champaign County planning and zoning director, said no one has lobbied Champaign County to increase its setback. And, he said, he is anticipating an application for a new wind farm development in northwestern Champaign County.
And more wind farms are a possibility in Vermilion, too.
Apex Clean Energy Inc., based in Virginia, already has a permit for its planned development in northwestern Vermilion County, called the Hoopeston wind project. Dahvi Wilson with Apex Clean Energy said the company is in the final stages of development for Hoopeston Wind, but there are still some key milestones that need to be met before the company determines a construction date and the number and size of turbines.
And Invenergy has plans for a phase two development of its California Ridge farm and does not have a permit yet. Alissa Krinsky, director of communications with Invenergy, said increased setbacks could have a real impact on those plans.
With more than 40 wind projects online, Illinois ranks fourth in the nation in the number of utility-scale wind turbines and total megawatts installed, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In 2012 alone, Illinois added more than 823 megawatts, ranking it fifth in the nation in the most new capacity added last year, but the percentage of Illinois' electricity provided by wind in 2012 was still under 4 percent, according to the association.
Vermilion County officials argue that in the absence of county-wide zoning, the county cannot legally deny a property owner from leasing his land, which would be the case if setbacks were increased to the point that wind farm development would not be possible.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Gary Weinard said the county has no zoning, no land-use policy and is not a home rule county, so if the county increases setbacks significantly, effectively banning wind farm development, then the county has, in effect, created a zoning ordinance and has taken property rights away from property owners and could be legally liable.
But Lomax, the Hartkes, Isabelli and Rankin-area residents Darrell and Kim Cambron have continued to attend Vermilion County Board meetings and publicly make their case, reiterating their complaints about noise and other issues, and calling for increased setbacks from property lines, not the foundations of their houses.
"To have a current setback of 1,200 feet, I guess they think we don't play outside, swim in the pool, ride our horses, work in our shops — all closer to the turbine than the foundation of our home," Isabelli said.
Jean and David Miles said there is a whining or humming noise when the turbines are repositioning. Sometimes there's a clunking or thumping from the rotating of the turbines, according to the Miles family and Isabelli, in addition to the constant whooshing from the blades turning. Lomax said the severity depends on the direction of the wind and the position of the turbines. David and Jean Miles said depending on the blade position and revolution speed, the turbines can sound like a jet engine. The Hartkes also compare the noise to an airplane in their backyard or diesel engines running.
The Miles family and Hartkes said the noise affects their sleep, and causes anxiety and headaches.
The Hartkes said they notified their local Invenergy representative and began reporting all noise events to the company, documenting the noise and weather conditions, hoping it would help Invenergy determine what conditions were causing the problem. The Hartkes said that within the first four months of California Ridge going operational, Invenergy shut down multiple turbines at their request on more than 50 occasions. The Hartkes said it was an improvement, but it still left the family sleep deprived and suffering from a number of health issues. Invenergy told them, the Hartkes said, to find contractors and get quotes for soundproofing their house. But the Hartkes did some research, and they said they learned it's not possible to soundproof against the type of "noise/infrasound produced by wind turbines." In May, the Hartkes said, Invenergy stopped turning off turbines at their request.
"The negative impact of this project on our family life, health and ability to live in our home and enjoy our property has been severe," the Hartkes said in a statement. Ted Hartke said the family has retained an attorney.
In 2009, Dr. Nina Pierpont's book, "Wind Turbine Syndrome: A Report on a Natural Experiment," was released. According to Pierpont, wind turbines emit infrasound — sound waves with frequencies below the lower limit of human hearing — and low-frequency noises that cause various symptoms in people, which she called Wind Turbine Syndrome.
There is conflicting research and medical opinions on whether wind turbines cause health issues, and in 2009, the American Wind Energy Association, the wind industry's main trade group, and the Canadian Wind Energy Association brought together a panel of professionals from a variety of disciplines to review current literature on the perceived health effects of wind turbines and concluded that subaudible, low-frequency sound and infrasound from wind turbines do not present a risk to human health.
According to the wind energy association, noise generated by wind turbines are in the range of 35 to 45 decibels at a distance of 1,148 feet, almost the same distance as Vermilion County's setback of 1,200 feet. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a noise level of 40 decibels is equal to a running stream or refrigerator humming. The Hartkes, Miles family and Isabelli said the noise from the turbines is well beyond the noise their refrigerators make.
Krinsky said an independent noise study is in the process of being completed at the California Ridge wind project, but did not elaborate on the study.
"We are committed to compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and look forward to continuing to produce clean, renewable energy as a key economic participant in the community," she said.
Vermilion County is not the only county, and Illinois is not the only state, where Invenergy and other wind companies are clashing with residents over noise and other complaints. Just last month, a man in Oregon filed a $5 million lawsuit against Invenergy over noisy wind turbines claiming problems with sleep, headaches and other health issues.