For more than 50 years, Carolyn Semin has treasured the black nighttime skies in the Nebraska Sandhills dotted with twinkling stars. "People come from all over the world to look at it, especially at Merritt Reservoir for the annual Star Party," she says.
Thinking about that dark, twinkling sky being replaced with bright flashing lights is only one of many reasons Semin is against the wind energy projects that are proposed for the Sandhills, and especially Cherry County.
In January 2010, the Cherry County Commissioners appointed a three person panel to research and discuss the potential impacts and opportunities of wind energy development in Cherry County. "The committee determined that there was significant interest in landowner directed local development, so the Cherry County Wind Energy Association was formed in early 2011," according to cherrycountywind.com.
Landowners with more than 100 acres were invited to join the group. Public hearings were held and radio appearances were made to generate interest. "In 2012, the Association moved to form Cherry County Wind, LLC to develop wind energy projects on member lands, with a top priority of preserving the environmental health of the region and maximizing the benefits to the broader community. Members include 70 landowners representing close to 450,000 acres," according to their website.
Original projects in Cherry County called for 30 wind turbines that would be built near Kilgore, and up to 150 turbines in southeast Cherry County near Thedford. Some studies were conducted at that time, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service would not give their approval for the Kilgore project. The conditional use permit submitted by BSH Kilgore was denied by both the Cherry County Planning and Zoning Board and the Cherry County Commissioners in December 2016.
Since then, the Cherry County Planning and Zoning Board has reviewed and rewritten regulations to help ensure the safety of its citizens and protect the environment by addressing some concerns like how close the wind turbines can be built to inhabited structures, noise levels, and turbine flicker.
During a commissioners' hearing earlier this year, testimony was received from 44 individuals with differing opinions regarding these regulations. The commissioners voted 2-1 against the regulations, sending them back to the zoning board for an overhaul. The planning board may resubmit the regulations individually to the commissioners for approval, so they can determine which regulations may need a second look.
Tax credits, incentives
Cherry County residents who support the development are enticed by expected high-dollar dividends and tax credits, not to mention the creation of new jobs the wind energy companies have promised the area. "Wind energy tax credits have benefited rural America by growing the economy, creating higher paying jobs, saving electricity consumer's money and supporting the US manufacturing industry," according to Bruce Graham, who is the Wind Energy Technology Department chairman at Cloud Community College in Concordia, Kansas. "Tax credits are now being phased out on an 80 percent, 60 percent and 40 percent schedule, which will end at the end of 2019. In 2020, wind energy will have no tax credits available, unlike all other forms of electrical generation," he notes.
Pitting friend against friend
The idea of wind energy has residents in the Sandhills drawing lines in the sensitive sand. "I think the saddest part of this whole situation is people who were life-long friends don't even speak to each other anymore. If they see one another in a store, they will walk clear to the other end of the store to avoid one another. It has caused a lot of rifts in the community, and loss of friendships," Semin says.
Tony Baker, legislative aide for Nebraska Senator Tom Brewer, agrees. Brewer's district is compromised of 13 counties in western Nebraska, including the Sandhills. "In the Sandhills of Nebraska, (you will find) the greatest people, and they would do anything to help you," he says. "But, family members and friends in Cherry County are fighting with each other because they're in conflict over wind energy projects and making money from it. Wind energy is tearing apart the fabric of Nebraska's rural communities, as it has done in other regional states," he explains.
The battle over wind energy development even carried over into the recent primary election for Cherry County Commissioner. One decisive factor in the race was whether the four candidates were for or against wind energy development in the county, and if they had a vested financial interest. Voters also expressed concern about fiscal responsibility, integrity, honesty, transparency, and the ability to listen to the people.
Cherry County Commissioner Tanya Storer of Whitman was re-elected, and fellow commissioner Jim Van Winkle of Wood Lake chose not to seek another term. James Ward was elected to that vacancy from the three remaining candidates.
Impact on the environment
Whether the wind energy proposals will come to fruition is anyone's guess. There are still studies to conduct, government hurdles to clear, and regulations to impose. "We have managed to hold them off for two years now," Semin says. "For those that oppose this project, the biggest concern is what it will do to the environment in the Sandhills. The Nebraska Sandhills is fragile, and one of the last remaining areas that is untouched. No studies have been conducted on how these big pads of cement under the wind turbines will impact the aquifer. I have a lot of concern about that."
However, Michael Knapp, chief of operations for Sandhills Energy, explains: "The cement used in a wind turbine foundation is just like the cement used for any other building built on land laying over the aquifer. Extensive environmental review and on site geotechnical engineering ensure that wind turbines are located far from wetlands and waters of the US, on ground suitable for stable construction of the tower."
Those who oppose the development also express concerns about the health of those who live near the turbines. "Wind energy is not a good neighbor," Baker says. "It's a constant 55 decibels of noise that rattles pictures on the wall. It casts shadows, and causes health effects that have come to light, like nausea and vertigo. If your neighbor does something on your ground that is not neighborly, you should have a say," he explains.
With tourism being the second highest source of income in Cherry County after cattle, installing wind turbines on the undisturbed scenery of the Sandhills will have an impact. "There is no other place like this in the world," Semin says. "People come here just to see the wildlife, not to mention the sparse population. They come here when they want to get away from it all. I have already heard rumblings from tourists who come here every year that if we construct wind towers they won't be back," she adds.