Whether it was supporters, opponents or those just curious about it, an open house this week drew many out to Roberts Park in Connersville to learn about the proposed West Fork Wind Energy Center project and the company behind it.
Nextera Energy Resources hosted an open host Thursday evening at the John H. Miller Community Center for the public to learn about the West Fork Wind Energy Center, formerly known as the Whitewater Wind Farm project, which is slated for 72 turbines to be constructed across Fayette, Henry and Rush counties and to generate almost 150 megawatts of electricity.
The project, which has been in the works since 2010, began to really pick up steam locally in 2014, when both the Fayette County Commissioners and Fayette County Council each signed off on contracts and tax abatements, respectively, for the wind farm. Projections by Nextera, of the local economic impact from the construction of the wind farm, clock in at roughly $28 million in landowner payments to those leasing property for the wind turbines, about 250 construction jobs during the project’s construction, between six to 10 fulltime jobs created, and an overall investment in the county of approximately $250 million.
The project has seen some transition over the past few months, not only with a name change but also a new project manager on board, Zachary Melda, who was on hand with other Nextera
representatives to fields questions from the public about the project. Melda replace former project manager Jeremy Ferrell as the lead on the project.
“It’s actually going really great,” Melda said Thursday evening in regards to his coming on board the local project and learning the community. “The community has been very supportive of this project. Jeremy Ferrell was a great project manager and he was a great mentor for me to have. The community itself, I’ve gotten to know a lot of these landowners on a first name basis, been to some of their houses ... it’s the kind of small-town atmosphere I was kind of used to growing
up. And it’s really humbling coming into a project like this.”
Information regarding the project – ranging from the placement of the approximately 72 General Election wind turbines throughout the three county area to how much electricity would be generated
– along with company background on Nextera, information on wind energy in general and even studies regarding the impact of sound from wind turbines on health, was available for the public to take.
Two subject matter experts regarding wind turbines and their impact on both human and environmental health were on hand for those attending to ask questions of.
One of those experts was Dr. Chris Ollson, a senior environmental health scientist with Ollson Environmental Health Management of Toronto, Canada, who spoke with individuals regarding environmental health. Ollson serves as a consultant, per his LinkedIn page, for clients to help provide solutions to their environmental health issues.
“I do a lot of different energy projects across North America, whether it be pipelines, waste energy projects or, in this case, renewable,” he said. “So looking at the evidence to see if a project like this is properly sited and what health concerns they might have.”
Ollson said the concerns he has heard from some Fayette County residents, about the health impact of wind turbines, are concerns he has heard in other communities, as well.
“In any community, when you have a project like this that’s potentially coming, you often see those concerns,” he said. “I’m here to talk about the actual science and literature, and research, that we and others have done behind the issue. And that when you look at these things, what you’re really trying to make sure is that these projects are set far enough back from people’s homes so they are quiet enough at night, so people will get a good night’s sleep.
“The issues like the shadow flicker, that although you may have some shadow flicker experience on your property, we know from decades of research that it’s actually not a health problem,” Ollson continued. “It can lead to some nuisance, and that’s why we try to set them back far enough so the nuisance is minimized. So the concerns that have been raised in the area are very similar to other areas, where projects are new coming in to an area ... it tends to be a small group of folks that are concerned, largely because of what they see on the Internet and what they read. The vast majority of projects, that I’ve worked on across the U.S., as a project becomes operational and the turbines go up, we rarely see complaints about the project itself.”
As for the local West Fork Wind Energy Center project, Melda said Nextera is very close to having a buyer for the power it would create, which is essentially the last piece to complete the puzzle and have the project begin in earnest. The company, earlier this month, came to an agreement with the Fayette County Commissioners to extend its economic development agreement for two
years, and will be approaching Fayette County Council Tuesday evening to seek an extension of its tax abatement for the project.
“We’re very close to a buyer,” Melda said. “It’s possible that we could start construction next year. A little bit more likely would be early 2018, but I’m thinking 2017-2018 will be the year for this project. We’re very close to have a buyer for it, because that’s kind of the last piece of the puzzle you need, and the reason for that is we’re seeing a big uptick in requests for wind energy not only just in general, but here in Indiana. With this project, they’re coming to me and saying ‘Hey, we know you have a project in Indiana. We want that one.’”
So do some local residents attending Thursday’s open house, such as county resident Larry Keller – the de facto head of the landowners group in Fayette County which has sought out bringing a wind farm to the county for the better part of the last decade.
“I’m happy things are progressing,” Keller said Thursday night.
So is another county resident, John Clarke, who while not a participating landowner in the wind project, is a supporter of the project.
“It’s great for the community,” he said. “The sooner we get this going, the sooner we’re going to reap the benefits of it. Really, for the most part, all the paperwork’s been finished in Fayette County and Henry County. Rush County’s coming up, hopefully, so get the electricity sold and start reaping some benefits of it down the road. “I think it will be more for the next generation, than it is mine, as far as property taxes and stuff,” he concluded. “But I’m looking forward to getting it started. It’s been a long haul.”
Other residents, however, did not share Clarke and Keller’s sentiments.
“I think it’s interesting that Nextera wanted to have this, at this time, after just last week, their attorney asked for an extension of their contract – before a verdict or summary judgment
has been issued from the Franklin County judge,” said Joe Schultz, a wind farm opponent who, along with more than 30 other county residents, has sued both Nextera and the Fayette County Commissioners regarding the legitimacy of the parties’ contract for the decommissioning of wind turbines and if it adheres to the county’s zoning ordinances.
A decision in that case, on whether it will proceed or be dismissed, is still pending from Franklin Circuit Court Judge Clay Kellerman.
Schultz also dismissed the information Nextera was providing those in attendance regarding the benefits of wind energy, the subject matter experts on sound and environmental health who were present, and the slated economic benefits of the West Fork Wind Energy Center.
“It’s just the same old propaganda, with very little substance. The people that are here, know and have studied this, I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous what’s on some of these billboards,” he continued. “It’s an insult to our intelligence. I hope the public gets involved with us, not just landowners that are affected by this but everyone. Because this affects this county, everyone – Rush County, Henry County. People really don’t understand the magnitude of a wind farm coming into a community like this, that doesn’t want it. And the people that don’t want it are the people who are affected by it, have to live underneath it, have to look at it.”
The open house even drew wind opponents from other counties, such as Don Miller, a resident of Henry County, which is seeing not only a slew of wind energy companies approach it regarding projects – Nextera, Apex Clean Energy and Calpine being just three of those companies – but also has a county committee examining the subject of wind turbines and setback distance.
Miller said he believes, from Henry County’s standpoint, they have been a target for wind companies due to the county’s wind ordinances.
“They’re some of the worst in the world, as far as setbacks, the sound,” he said. “They’re absolutely horrible.”
Miller also felt that companies such as Nextera, Apex Clean Energy and other wind energy companies are seeking out areas such as Henry, Fayette, Rush and Wayne counties not only due to the lax wind ordinances, but because they are also economically depressed areas, making them more susceptible to projects promising large economic impact.
“That’s how they get the attention of the elected officials and appointed officials,” he said. “They dangle big bucks and, if you do much research, if that big bucks actually happens is (yet to be seen). Henry County, like a lot of these farming counties, is in big trouble financially, so they’re grabbing at straws. The way we look at it, though, is the people that are opposed to this are not opposed to wind energy. The people that are opposed to this, they’re opposed to poorly sited wind energy. When you build these things 550 feet from a property line, and these things are almost 600 feet tall, it’s insane. It’s just wrong.
“If you want to site them properly, and keep them far enough away from humans, nobody has a problem with it,” Miller concluded. “But they can’t get enough turbines in the county to make the profit they want to make, without doing that. Without putting them as close as possible.”
Wind energy will again be a topic of discussion next week, as the Fayette County Council will decide at its meeting Tuesday, at 6 p.m. at the Fayette County Courthouse, whether or not to extend the tax abatement for Nextera regarding the West Fork Wind Energy Center project.
That meeting is open to the public.