Wind energy has been a contentious subject in Livingston County since Invenergy first filed an application to build a wind farm near Fairbury in 2014. While setbacks were increased countywide after the County Board acted on results from the 2016 general election referendum, the possibility of more wind turbines coming to the area, especially in the northeastern townships, remains an open question.
It was only earlier this February that a problem that had plagued the county for four years running came to a solution, albeit one with considerable compromise and to the absolute approval of few. At its Feb. 15 meeting, the Livingston County Board approved a countywide setback distance of at least 3,250 feet for wind tower construction — excepting the townships of Broughton, Dwight, Nevada, Odell, Round Grove, Sullivan and Union, whose residents voted in favor of a shorter setback distance on the November 2016 referendum question that finally settled the matter.
While the matter may be settled in the area, its recently come once again into focus for Livingston County’s southern neighbor: on Jan. 22, the Lexington City Council approved an Invenergy proposal to build nine turbines within corporate limits, while Chenoa OK’d a plan for Invenergy to build four towers in its city two weeks before. And given the northeastern townships’ vote, the debate may return closer to home sooner rather than later.
The issue first arose in 2014, when wind energy company Invenergy proposed to build more than 130 turbines in its planned Pleasant Ridge Wind Farm in the Fairbury area. A large enough number of residents voiced their concerns with having wind turbines in their vicinity that on July 2015, the county board voted down Invenergy’s proposal.
But the matter of wind energy’s future was still an open question right up until the February vote. The exclusion of the northeastern townships from the new setbacks was based upon residents of those townships voting in favor of the older, more wind energy-friendly setback distances on the 2016 general election ballot, which contained a referendum question about support for greater setbacks.
According to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the country has a 1,057 total “power plants” — or, as they are better known, wind farms. Per information obtained in a December 2017 Gatehouse Media project, “Under the Shadow of Wind Farms,” that’s triple the number from a decade ago.
There are a number of advantages of wind energy: compared to energy derived from fossil fuels, wind is more cost-effective, more sustainable and, perhaps most crucially, cleaner. The benefit on the local level is evident, too: at a July 2015 rally in Forrest Township Library, held in support of Invenergy, Forrest Village President Jim Gulliford said that the turbines could create 100 permanent jobs, while Jeff Bryan, superintendent of Tri-Point CUSD J6, suggested at the same gather that the proposed Pleasant Ridge towers could fund 25 teachers in the Prairie Central School District.
At the time, the district faced a budget deficit of nearly $2.5 million, but by the approval of the budget for Fiscal Year 2018, the situation had improved to where the revenue was $22,350,733, with expenditures of $23,233,640.
In a more settled matter, the city of Lexington will receive $3,000 per turbine the first year, eventually generating up to $5,800 per turbine over the 30 years of the contract. Kevin Parzyck, vice president of development for Invenergy’s central Illinois region, said that there could be 35 permanent jobs, and as many as 1,400 jobs created for the year-long construction process.
So what has made wind energy so divisive, enough that the body politic of Livingston County was so against it as to extend the setback distance far enough away so that turbine construction was no longer practical?
The objections to wind turbines stem are myriad, as evinced by public commentary at a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting from February 2015. Several residents were deterred by the noise created by the spinning of turbine blades, with one likening it to a “roar.” Another testified that she felt physical effects, aches and pains throughout her body, upon approaching a wind farm. Still others claimed that wind farms could drive down property values and negatively impact local economies.
While wind energy companies have insisted that such concerns are either exaggerated or entirely misplaced, other, more neutral parties have noted that the truth lies in the margins.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group concerned with directing scientific effort and energy on enivornmental crises, notes on its website that while wind energy is one of the “cleanest and most sustainable ways to generate electricity as it produces no toxic pollution or global warming emissions ... there are a variety of environmental impacts associated with wind power generation that should be recognized and mitigated.”
As just one example of a public health concern, the Union cites the effect known as “shadow flicker,” which is created by the intermittent shadows cast by rotating blades — it can range from mild annoyance to being capable of causing headaches.
Currently, neither Invenergy nor any other wind energy company has yet expressed official interest in the northeastern townships of Livingston County, but should a zoning application be submitted, the debate — placed on a precarious hold — will likely resume as hot as ever.
The federal Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy lists both what the agency believes are advantages and disadvantages of wind energy conversion systems. Some of the positives of wind energy include:
‒ The cost-effectiveness of it, since it can be sold as low as two cents per kilowatt-hour, making it one of the cheapest forms of energy available.
‒ The sustainability of it, given its in inexhaustibility when contrasted with fossil fuels.
‒ Its status as a source of clean fuel source, one that doesn’t cause pollution as the combustion of fossil fuels do.
While wind energy can certainly lay claim to a host of positives, they do not come without a cost. The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy notes that negatives of wind energy include:
‒ The propensity for turbines to cause noise and aesthetic pollution, such as the shadow flicker effect and how loud the rotating blades can sound.
‒ The potential for damage to wildlife, as birds and bats have been known to fly into the path of the blades.
‒ The chance that a wind farm might not be competitive with more conventional forms of energy, given that a site might not generate enough wind for the project to be profitable.