LINCOLN — Fifteen years ago, Cindy Chapman and her husband moved to an acreage south of this city in search of their peaceful slice of the countryside.
“We decided we wanted to get back to the life we had as kids, with a big yard and big gardens, enjoying the birds and beautiful sunset,” said Chapman, who grew up on a farm near Geneva, Nebraska.
But when a German-based corporation announced plans last year to erect 54 wind turbines near the couple’s 6-acre plot, Chapman turned into an activist, digging into the available reports on the economic and health impacts of wind farms.
Now, a group she formed, Stop Hallam Wind, is poised to win tough, new restrictions on wind farms in Nebraska’s second-largest county. Wind energy advocates say those restrictions would not only rule out wind farms in Lancaster County but could spread to other counties and turn wind developers away from the state.
“This just adds to the feeling in the industry that Nebraska isn’t open to business for wind development. And that’s not helpful,” said David Levy, an attorney and lobbyist who represents Volkswind USA Inc., the company seeking to build the wind farm in southern Lancaster and northern Gage Counties.
While opposition has been raised to wind farms in places like New Hampshire, Indiana and Cape Cod, there has been little controversy about the noise, power lines and disturbance of the scenery associated with wind turbines in Nebraska.
In September, residents of six rural townships in Butler County, about 50 miles west of Omaha, voted in favor of new restrictions on wind farms in reaction to a proposal by a Florida company to erect up to 112 wind turbines in the area.
In Lancaster County, the County Board will meet on Nov. 10 to decide whether to enact new, stricter wind farm regulations.
While opponents like Chapman say the new rules will protect property values and address health concerns, wind energy proponents say those concerns aren’t based in science and will kill wind development.
“(Wind farms) are probably an annoyance to someone who doesn’t want the project,” said Bill Avery of Lincoln, a Lancaster County Board member and former state senator. “I get annoyed when I hear train whistles in the night, but I don’t want to shut down train whistles in the county.”
Avery said he’s hoping to persuade his colleagues to reverse course and adopt more reasonable regulations.
Roma Amundson of Walton chairs the County Board and has lived on an acreage south of Lincoln for three decades. She said the property tax and job benefits aren’t worth the potential health risks associated with noise generated by the wind turbines, though she concedes the risks are not proven.
She said the estimated taxes paid by the Hallam wind farm, about $700,000 a year, wouldn’t translate into a significant reduction in tax bills for the nearly 300,000 residents of Lancaster County.
And the handful of jobs created to tend to the wind farm, Amundson said, pales in comparison to the more than 100 jobs being created by another new business in the Hallam area. A firm called Monolith has plans to produce carbon black at a new plant and provide a byproduct, hydrogen, to power a boiler at a nearby power plant operated by the Nebraska Public Power District.
Amundson, a real estate agent, said she also believes property values would be harmed, based on the negative reaction she gets from most clients seeking acreages when told a wind farm might be going in next door.
“In general, I’m very supportive of wind energy,” she said. “But there is a place for it, and it’s not Lancaster County.”
It was probably just a matter of time before NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” crept into the state debate over wind energy.
In the past, the discussion in the Legislature has been about how to jump-start development of wind farms in a wind-rich state that has lagged behind its neighbors in harnessing the wind, and the benefits that come from it, for rural areas.
Nebraska, as of 2014, ranked 20th in installed wind generating capacity with 810 megawatts. By comparison, Iowa ranked third with seven times as much generating capacity, 5,710 megawatts.
But now, some rural residents in Nebraska are starting to question whether they want a wind farm in their backyard.
While the Hallam area, with its plentiful small acreages and proximity to Lincoln might be somewhat of an exception, the debates in Lancaster and Butler Counties bear watching to see if the trend toward tougher restrictions spreads.
Levy, the wind developer’s attorney, said there’s a reason his client chose the Hallam area. It has the three ingredients needed for a wind farm: ample wind, willing landowners and available transmission lines.
Wind farms in remote, sparsely settled locations, he said, typically don’t have available transmission lines, which increases the cost of a project.
In the Hallam area, lease agreements have been signed with 60 property owners, he said, that typically pay about $10,000 a year, per wind tower.
Levy said there are no scientific studies to back up the health concerns and that a 2013 study by the Berkeley National Laboratory showed no impact on nearby property values.
He said he has helped site 10 wind farms in Nebraska, and this was the first year he has encountered opposition.
But opponents like Chapman said wind farms are relatively new and people are just starting to assess health concerns.
The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, in a report to county officials, said the noise generated by wind turbines is different than that generated by a passing train or semitrailer truck. Much of the sound is below the level of human hearing, the report stated, and the noise created combines the “swish” of the turbine blades and a “thump” when a blade swings past the tower.
Overall, the department said wind turbine noise is annoying enough that it can cause increased heart rates and increased blood pressure that could lead to hypertension and sleeplessness.
County health officials said that due to “gaps” in knowledge about health impacts, the county should be conservative in its regulations.
It suggested limits of 40 decibels during the day and 37 decibels at night for wind turbines, as measured from nearby dwellings. That compared to a recommendation by the county planning commission of 50 decibels during the day and 42 decibels at night.
According to the Hearing Health Foundation, 40 decibels is about the noise level generated by a refrigerator. By contrast, a crowded school cafeteria or heavy city traffic generates about 85 decibels of noise, the foundation says.
Levy, the wind farm’s attorney, said 50 decibels is a reasonable restriction that is commonly adopted by counties.
But after a discussion by the County Board on Tuesday, members voted 3-2 vote to draft regulations based on the health department’s recommendations. The proposed limits will face a vote by the County Board on Nov. 10.
Levy said the proposed standard would require at least a half-mile separation of any wind turbine from a dwelling, which rules out Lancaster County for any large-scale wind farm.
That would be fine with Chapman, who says there’s plenty of less densely populated places in Nebraska where locating 400-foot-tall wind turbines would be appropriate.
“Any time that we had ever came near turbines of this size seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “You really didn’t see homes near them. That makes sense.