Chicago Reader


Reader Info
Advertising, subscriptions, staff, privacy policy, contact info, freelancers' guidelines, etc.

submit to the windy citizen | Digg! Digg this | | E-mail E-mail this | facebook Facebook

There Will Be Wind

Some Wisconsin residents say wind turbines are making them sick--but it's hard to get much sympathy when you object to something as squeaky clean as renewable energy

[photo: Wind turbines in Fond Du Lac County, Wisconsin]

Wind turbines near the town of Byron in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin

Gerry Meyer

May 14, 2009

Only middling winds sweep the rolling fields of Wisconsin—in a ranking of states’ wind-energy potential it’s 18th, with just a 20th of the potential of front-runner North Dakota. But Wisconsin intends to make the most of the winds it has. Its goal is to generate a tenth of its electricity from renewable resources by 2015, and of those resources, wind is far and away the leader. Since January 1, 2008, according to the not-for-profit agency Renew Wisconsin, 251 turbines have gone online, producing 396 megawatts of power and increasing the state’s wind-generated capacity by a factor of eight. Another 1,500 megawatts are in the pipeline.

Yet what’s remarkable about wind energy in Wisconsin isn’t the state’s commitment to it; it’s the local opposition. Last January Manitowoc County said no to a developer who wanted to raise seven new turbines, and there was nothing unusual about Manitowoc’s decision—there hasn’t been a project approved in Wisconsin since March of ’07. Michael Vickerman of Renew Wisconsin says that since then a half-dozen projects totaling 600 megawatts have been blocked, mostly by “restrictive ordinances designed to thwart development.”

“You’re not seeing anything like this in Iowa, a tiny amount in Minnesota, a little more in Illinois,” says Vickerman. “But somehow the opposition there hasn’t reached the level of sophistication and wealth to hire attorneys and engage in harassing lawsuits.”

To the champions of wind power, the resistance is benighted and intolerable. “In a state that prides itself on its progressive renewable standards,” says Eric Callisto, chairperson of Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission, “getting our wind resources stymied at the local level is not acceptable.”

But to wind power critics, those restrictive local ordinances are enlightened and appropriate. Cartoonist Lynda Barry, a fixture in the Reader for years and now a Wisconsin resident, says she used to support wind power but believes its partisans have shut their eyes and ears to its victims, to people suffering physical ailments caused by living near the turbines.

Chicago Reader: These Parts issue

Benton Harbor Wild Wild Midwest The architecture, the agriculture, the art, the archaeology—there's nowhere in America quite like Detroit right now.
By Jonathan Mahalak

Willi Lehner There Will Be Wind Some Wisconsin residents say wind turbines are making them sick—but it's hard to get much sympathy when you object to something as squeaky clean as renewable energy
By Michael Miner

Gary, Indiana Men In Suits A new documentary explores the cult of Wisconsin mascot Bucky Badger.
By Ed M. Koziarski

Gary, Indiana Cheese Makers for a Day Some of Chicagoland's best chefs head for Coopersville, Michigan to get their hands curdy.
By Mike Sula

Gary, Indiana Summer Guide Fairs, festivals, and other events in Chicago and across the region

At the turn of the last century there were folks who refused to ride in a horseless carriage moving at a breathtaking 20 miles an hour. Their terror was real but it didn’t stop the automobile. Are the voices raised against wind turbines simply denying progress?

That’s how they’re being described. Vickerman calls the opposition a “vocal minority” that’s “moved out into the countryside a la Green Acres and they expect no changes to the landscape after they move in.”

In a report the Energy Center of Wisconsin, another nonprofit, is preparing on the state’s renewable resources, an unnamed authority describes turbine opponents as people who “state they are ‘for renewable energy, just not here’ and go on about health and safety concerns as the reason for locating projects in North Dakota or somewhere else where they can’t see them.”

In other words, the opponents are a bunch of NIMBYs. On March 18, the editorial page of Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal declared: “Wisconsin cannot afford to let the statewide interest in harnessing clean, renewable power from the wind be frustrated by local ‘not in my backyard’ campaigns against wind farms.” On March 20 the page followed up with a cartoon of a grotesque naysayer bellowing, “Not in My Back Yard.”

Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission sets the terms for wind farms generating more than 100 megawatts of electricity. But there are only two of those—a single turbine can generate about 1.5 megawatts, and Wisconsin doesn’t offer the wide open spaces big wind farms require. Any farm under 100 megawatts has to abide by rules set by the local authorities. And Vickerman says those authorities, under intense pressure from naysayers, impose requirements that cannot be met. The big one involves the minimum setback—the distance a turbine may be sited from the nearest home.

The wider the setback, the harder it is for a developer to find enough space for a turbine. And the more remote from civilization a wind farm is, the more expensive it is to construct and to connect with the power grid. So the wind companies pay $5,000 to $7,000 a year per turbine to put them in farmers’ fields.

The wind power industry says a 1,000-foot setback from the nearest neighbor’s house is just about right. Vickerman says local boards kill turbine projects by demanding setbacks that have ranged from 1,800 feet to a full mile.

How you feel about setbacks will depend on how you feel about the tales of woe spread by people like Lynda Barry on her Web site, Better Plan, Wisconsin ( She insists the low-frequency rumble of the turbines, more felt than heard, and the flickering sunlight thrown by the spinning blades cause people living nearby to suffer from nausea, incessant headaches, and insomnia. Barry e-mailed Scott Milfred, editor of the Journal’s editorial page, and told him the paper’s jeering cartoon simply added to the victims’ “hopelessness of ever having their story told.”

“I don’t believe the noise and flicker issues are as bad as people say,” Milfred replied. “I’m sorry we don’t agree on that. Perhaps, living next to a four-lane highway and train tracks, I’m more tolerant of noise.”

Milfred suggested Barry write a letter to the editor and keep it to 200 words. “As for our editorial board,” he said, “we are convinced that the minor nuisance created by turbines in noise and flicker is more than offset by the positive benefits of the clean energy.”

The Journal’s editorial and cartoon placed the newspaper squarely behind a pending bill meant to undermine wind farm opponents. It would empower the Public Service Commission to set statewide standards for all wind turbines and let wind farm developers stymied by local authorities appeal directly to the commission.

Vickerman said a hearing on the bill this Tuesday before a joint legislative committee on energy and utilities would be “bedlam—pandemonium.” He was scheduled to testify for the bill; Barry was scheduled to testify against it.

Turbines set back 1,000 feet from homes

Shadow flicker

Wind turbine sound

News segment on turbine trouble in Wisconsin

If the local resistance to wind turbines is no more than reflexive NIMBY-ism, when has more time and toil gone into mindless hostility? Consider, for example, the town of Union, in the northwest corner of the state 20 miles south of Madison. Last November, after months of research and discussion, Union passed a 48-page turbine licensing ordinance hailed by opponents of the pending bill. It’s as larded with sources as the average doctoral dissertation. On the crucial issue of setbacks, the ordinance cited a Western Australia Planning Commission Bulletin, the National Wind Collaborating Committee, the National Research Council, and a German study. Union’s new ordinance requires each wind turbine to be set back at least 2,640 feet (half a mile) from the nearest residence.

Milfred told Barry that in the view of the Journal’s editorial board, a 1,000-foot setback is ample. Barry answered, “In Europe, they wouldn’t dream of siting a turbine that close to a home,” and she wondered what “scientific or medical data” the Journal based its opinion on.

Milfred offered none. “The reason for the 1,000 foot setback is so that noise and any flicker are minimized,” he told Barry. “If you feel the setback should be longer, why don’t you write us a 200-word letter to the editor arguing that point. If you live by a windmill, you could give your experienced take.”

Instead, Barry sent Milfred a report from the Congressional Research Service issued in June 2008. On page 32 the report said, “Like visual aesthetics, wind turbine noise is often a matter of individual preferences and tolerances. For residences over 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) from a wind turbine, noise is generally not an issue. . . . Shadow flicker generally does not affect residences located 10 rotor diameters or more (about 0.5 miles) from the turbine, except possibly early in the morning or late in the evening when shadows are long.”

A kilometer is roughly 1,000 yards. That’s three times as wide a setback as the Journal favors in Wisconsin.

“If you don’t agree with us, so what?” answered Milfred, apparently running out of patience. “Write in your own 200-word opinion.” And as a postscript: “Do you live by a wind turbine? If not, why are you so concerned.”

But if the views of NIMBYs are to be discounted because they live near the wind turbines, and the views of critics like Barry can be dismissed because they don’t, then who has standing to object?

Lynda Barry

It can be tough being an aginner when what’s at stake is renewable energy and you are, on principle, all for it. Here’s how Vickerman reads the aginners. “You can’t stop a project in Wisconsin based on the appearance of these turbines,” he says, “so over the past seven years the opposition has refined its arguments and framed them in the realm of protecting public health and safety. Here, as far as I’m concerned, is where they reveal their antiwind bias. They allege that they can’t sleep, they suffer from nausea—they express their discomfort in the most hysterical terms, and I think they basically work themselves into a very visceral hatred for wind. I don’t even know if they have a philosophical objection to wind. They’re maybe congenitally unhappy people and they needed to project their fears and anxieties and resentments onto something new that comes into the neighborhood and disrupts things.”

The aginners’ case is easy to find laid out online. You’ll see Ernie Marshall of Goderich, Ontario, tell a TV reporter, “I’ve had problems with my heart. I’ve had problems with my ears. It traumatizes your whole body. . . . Everybody kept calling me a liar. Sit there for a week and listen to them and see what it does to your body. I had to get out, or I wouldn’t be standing here right now talking to you.” You’ll read Britain’s Telegraph reporting back in 2004, “Doctors say that the turbines—some of which are taller than Big Ben—can cause headaches and depression among residents living up to a mile away.”

Some attempts to explain these effects are probably more helpful to Barry’s cause than others. Madis Senner writes in Wisdom magazine that “wind turbines disturb the proper functioning of Mother Earth’s subtle body by blocking the flow of prana/chi/qi; the life force that sustains humanity and the plant and animal kingdoms.”

But then there’s Nina Pierpont, an upstate New York pediatrician who’s finishing a book, Wind Turbine Syndrome, and has posted the latest draft online. Pierpont begins by giving space to champions of wind turbines who hold that wherever miseries exist the people to blame are the miserable. For instance, Noble Environmental Power runs wind farms in six states, and its Web site deals with the question of wind turbine noise by explaining, “If someone has a negative attitude to wind turbines, or is worried about them, this will affect how they feel about the sound. However, if someone has a positive attitude toward wind energy, it’s very unlikely that the sounds will bother them at all.” And a British noise consultant, commenting on a wind farm project in New Zealand, advised that “we have to keep in mind that people who have failed, for whatever reason, in strong objections to a development, build up in themselves a level of unfulfilled expectations and consequent stress, which peaks after the failure and can overload their coping capabilities. This leads them to lay the blame on whatever straw they can clutch. This is especially so in group activities, where mutual support may turn to a mutual interacting misery, which worsens the situation.”

Pierpont calls these reflections “rubbish” and goes on, “There is nothing ‘psychosomatic’ or malingering about it. Research clearly shows there are precise and definable neurologic connections that explain how sensory signals can derail normal psychological and cognitive function and, in fact, trigger physical symptoms.”

Kevin Borgia, of Wind for Illinois, dismisses Pierpont’s message by attacking her medium: “Pierpont has a flashy resumé, but medical researchers publish in medical journals, not on Web sites.”

Michael Vickerman makes the point that if the developers are intruding on the countryside, the Green Acres crowd is “effectively newcomers, too, if you take a longer view. They have nothing in common with the old-line farmers who are used to working the land for their livelihoods.” Adds Ed Blume, Vickerman’s colleague at Renew Wisconsin, “The farmer understands the land is there to make money for them and their family, and harvesting wind is no different from harvesting beans.”

But Barry says most farmers who own land on which turbines stand can’t discuss their problems because they’ve signed leases containing gag clauses. On the other hand, the folks next door complain plenty, she says, and these are the folks we hear from in the comic Barry’s made to illustrate this piece. They’re not city folks seeking Eden, she says; they’re people who have lived all their lives on the farms where she found them, and they rue the day the turbines came.   


[Comic: Life in an 86-Turbine Windfarm, Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin: After One Year - By Lynda Barry 2009- Interviews with residents living near 400ft turbines]


Send a letter to the editor.

From the Reader blogs


We welcome your comments and suggestions. Click here to send us a message.

© 2015 Sun-Times Media, LLC.