ELLSWORTH – Corn is finally out of the fields on top of the Bloomington moraine, and residents can see how dramatically their horizon is changing.
Towering wind turbines dominate the landscape. Some are finished, measuring 398 feet from the ground to the tip of an upright blade. Others are under construction, and hundreds of workers and vehicles swarm over the rural roads, delivering blades, tower pieces, cranes and other equipment and supplies to building sites.
When they're done, 120 wind turbines will stand in farm fields on the moraine northeast of LeRoy, and that's just the beginning, said Randy Lloyd, a member of one farm family participating in the massive Horizon Wind Energy project that will leash wind at that high spot in McLean County to generate power to sell to the continent's grid.
Lloyd and Ellsworth landowner Jack Doyle said when the project's finished, 240 turbines will be built in Dawson, Arrowsmith and Cheney's Grove townships near Illinois 9, which crosses eastern McLean County. Horizon has named the installation Twin Groves Wind Farm.
"Illinois 9 is the top," Lloyd said. "Half is going in now, and half will go in next spring."
Horizon built four towers on Harlan Builta Family Trust land, and Lloyd's wife, Diane, is a partner in the trust. He said it didn't take long for family members, who include his wife's two brothers, to decide to participate in the project, which started about five years ago.
"The farming difficulties are outweighed by the advantages," Lloyd said. "The trust gets $5,000 per tower annually with cost-of-living adjustments, Horizon paid all the expenses of easements, and the company leases ground from us to get to the turbines. They put in really good roads to them. Now we have a new way to get crops out of the field."
He said the groundwork, which started in August, took longer than building the turbines. Construction access took extra ground out of production because huge trucks carrying blade and tower parts need to make wide turns in the fields. But Lloyd said Horizon promises to bring in heavy tillage equipment when construction is done to restore the compacted land to crop production conditions for next year.
"They've done everything they said they would," he said. "They've been very good to work with."
Project developer Bill Whitlock, who is based at Bloomington, started talking to farmers about the project five years ago and they had questions.
"It's a big commitment to them," he said. "Land is important, and they're very cautious about who they do business with. But these are very supportive, well-educated farmers. They understand renewable energy. It's not just about the money."
Farmers did a lot of research before work began. Doyle, who has two turbines on his property, said he traveled to California and spent an afternoon near Palm Springs touring the inner workings of an enormous wind farm there.
"An off-duty employee took me on the tour, and it was so interesting," he said. "Last year I went to New York to see one under construction there – one about the size of this project – and it made it easier on me when work started around here because I knew what to expect."
He said in spite of all the disruption, the hundreds of concrete trucks and delivery trucks crowding the rural roads, there have been few complaints.
"I thought it was a great idea from the beginning," Doyle said. "Of course, at the time, corn was $1.85 a bushel. But this is about changing times. We have to get renewable energy somewhere."
Lloyd also visited California to look at wind farms there, and both he and Doyle traveled up to Paw Paw, where another company has built a wind farm.
"Our philosophy is, this is going to happen so we might as well benefit from it," Lloyd said.
Whitlock said farmers aren't the only members of the community who benefit. He said the general contractor, Mortenson of Minneapolis, hired voltage contractors from Chicago. But other workers are hired locally – an estimated 250 jobs.
Concrete alone is a huge local job: Each tower is anchored with about 35 truckloads of it. Whitlock said the concrete work is designed so if turbines are taken down, the top layer can be removed and covered with topsoil so farmers can plant crops there again.
He said all the rebar work was also done by area union employees.
Whitlock said the construction is "no fun," but it's good to see the plans taking shape.
"It's pretty rewarding after five years of hard work to get to construction," he said. "It takes a lot of time to talk to farmers, complete all the studies we're required to do like wind studies, avian studies and wetlands studies.
"We'll also continue to do post-construction avian monitoring, something we're also required to do."
Lloyd said when residents get used to them, the turbines blend into the background.
"I'd rather be looking at them than the turbine of a nuclear power plant," he said. "I'd rather have them in my back yard than a coal mine. We need energy. Let's harvest what we have."