Editorial: Can we choose the wind?

By Frank Schier

Editor & Publisher

Here’s a question that was posed to me the other day:  “Wind farms are the industrial production of energy. How can we drop these energy plants in the middle of an area in Winnebago County that has been designated agricultural and natural by the recently-passed 2030 land-use plan, and not violate those agricultural and green space designations?”

After a  hard-fought battle by many, the 2030 plan incorporates the Greenways Plan and the Natural Resource Inventory with extensive language and maps, but it also has a comparatively small section that allows for wind farm development. How do they really compare?

See for yourself. Drive out west on Route 20 past Freeport and Elroy, and take a right on Route 73; go through Lena on 73, and you’ll come up to a large hill a few miles out of town. When you get to the top of that hill, look out; and, if you’re like me. your eyes will widen, your jaw will drop, and these words or something like them will hit you: “These things are huge. Bigger than huge. Gargantuan!”—you’ll be looking at towering rows of unbelievably-sized stark, white turbines. Each tower and turbine sports three massively long, curved, scimitar-like blades.

It’s the EcoGrove wind farm in Stephenson County that held an open house last Saturday, Sept. 19. ACCIONA Energy North America’s 100.5-megawatt EcoGrove Wind Farm has 67 ACCIONA Windpower 1.5-megawatt wind turbines. The EcoGrove Wind Farm has the capacity to power “more than 25,000 U.S. homes and offset approximately 176,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually,” according to a recent press release. “The EcoGrove facility is spread across more than 7,000 rural acres. With the exception of the small footprint made by the 67 turbines, at less than 1 acre each, land use is dominated by farming, which coexists with the wind energy production.”

I’d have to disagree with that.

The turbines completely dominate the viewscape of the farmland. If we put them in Winnebago County, the chain will rule the landscape with its obviousness. Their stark, gleaming white, monstrous size was so eerie even from a distance, I was reminded  of the big Star Wars robots/tanks, although the turbines are elegantly sleek and much bigger.

One look—common sense— will strike anybody—these things are going to take down some birds! Think about how many birds have flown right into your closed windows, bounced off, and tried it again. As beautiful as many species are, the phrase “bird brained” did not come about by accident (pun intended). Common sense tells anyone who looks at these towering wonders of technology—birds will not bounce off those amazingly large blades.

Then there’s the whole question of the attraction of bats to these things. Bats eat insects. Fewer bats, more insects, do the West Nile virus math.

Common sense also says blade flicker/flash and blade shadow have to be very real and very big. I would not want to live next door to one out in what I thought was an idyllic countryside.

The operational noise debate on wind speed is varied as to the reality of the impact, but they just can’t be silent. I would not want to live next door to one, nor would I want any even kind of close to a forest preserve or natural area. Kinda like having a rodeo next door, only much larger and probably quieter. The natural experience would be ruined because a whopper of an energy plant is whirring away on the skyline or overhead.

Then this is counterbalanced by the jobs, the new crop for the farmers, power (which will not help your electric rate because it will get shipped into the national grid) and that magic word “sustainability.” As we sloganed the Winnebago County Green Business Awards, “Sustainability is Good Business.” Yes, when the environment is not impacted by a double-edged sword. Does the land usage and endangerment, and the cost of production and installation really offset the carbon footprint for each watt of energy produced?

We rejected an ethanol plant because it was too close to a residential area, and because of the potential ground water pollution. We rejected a hog plant because of the possible pollution and the carnage created in the lives of the people who worked there.

Hummm. Do parallel considerations apply to wind farms? Haunting circumstances provided the answer, at least to me.

The next day, Sunday, I drove up to Lake Delavan, Wis., to attend the Native American Heritage Days at Community Park on  South Shore Drive, Delavan, Wis., sponsored by the “Odanah Project.” Coordinator Thunder Ruthven is also trying to save a mound in the area from destruction by road expansion.

‘‘Odanah” means “village” in the Ojibwa language, or “a meeting of hearts.” As I stood watching the colorful dances of intertribal powwow going round and around the  central drumming pavilion, reality rippled like the nearby lake.

These Native Americans had to hold their ceremony in a municipal, public park surrounded by lake homes, roads, with a full parking lot shared with boaters and their trailers, and folks enjoying the public beach. The afternoon became cloudy and cooler. After slurping delicious venison and wild rice soup, I wrapped up my Indian Taco in tinfoil because I was full.

The commercial image of Chief Dan George with a tear running down his cheek appeared in my mind’s eye as I watched the clouding sky, and the lake started to whitecap. Chants, ankle bells, drums, the dancer’s MC on the PA, car noise, kids playing, people conversing were in my ears. I closed my eyes and  tried to imagine back in time when this park was the real place for “meeting of hearts,” full of mounds, a real village.

Now only one mound remains with a flowerbed built into one end of it. A sacred fire, tended by Mac ”Spotted Horse” MacVenn and some friends, smoked near the mound on the edge of the entrance driveway and asphalt parking lot.

Then I saw the almightily-huge wind turbines in my mind’s eye, with the corn roiling in the wind underneath the turning blades, Lena, farms, barns and Lake le-Qua Na State Park in the distance.

In the future, how many of us will feel incongruous tears running down our cheeks because industry and development have taken the charms of our parks, natural areas and farms? We all have enough tears now. Let’s wait a while and not rush anymore. I’d like to see the real crops and fruits  of “EcoGrove” before we go too far in planting technology in western Winnebago County, way past the supposed Meridian Road firewall for development. 2030 plan?

Let us take our time and make each site a “special-use” consideration because time should teach us what is really “special.” Call your county  board member today before it’s too late, and all of us are, too. Time’s changes tell all tales of wonder or woe. Choose. The haunting wind is blowing.

From the September 23-29, 2009 issue

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