-Months have passed since anyone has waved hello to one another in Waterman or Shabbona in rural DeKalb County, Ill. Some people claim they’ve even stopped going to church to avoid having to talk to former friends.

“It’s gone. The country way of living is gone,” declares Susan Flex, who lives in Waterman with her husband and their nine children.

The animosity stems from the greenest of energy sources: a wind farm.

The turbines started arriving last summer, at a rate of two a day, their parts trucked in on flatbeds. Today 126 turbines dot the county, with another 19 just over the border in Lee County. They have been making enough electricity since December to power 55,000 homes.

DeKalb County’s efforts appear to be in line with President Obama’s push for the U.S. to produce 25 percent of its energy needs with renewable resources by 2025. Illinois has added more wind power than all but four states.

Yet the story playing out just an hour and half from Chicago is one of policy-meets-reality. While the idea of creating power from the wind sounds ideal, the massive structures that have gone up have dramatically affected the people who live there, country life and the landscape.


Each turbine stands about 400 feet tall from the tips of its blades to the ground – roughly the height of the Wrigley Building in Chicago. Infighting over the turbines has pitted families against landowners, farmers against friends, and even family members against one another.

Proponents are landowners and farmers who say they want to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. They also point out that the income from leasing land for a turbine is more than what they collect renting to corn and soybean farmers.

The turbines, which are assessed at a million dollars each, represent the largest investment made in the county, said Ruth Anne Tobias, DeKalb County Board chairman. And the expected annual tax revenue is unprecedented: $1.45 million.

Steve Stengel, a spokesman for turbine-owner NextEra Energy Resources, a unit of FPL Group, whose holdings include Florida Power & Light Co., said $50 million in payments is expected to be made to landowners over the 30-year life of the project.

But such windfalls haven’t assuaged people who claim the turbines have harmed their health. They say noise from turbines is disrupting sleep, and they blame the strobe-like flashes produced by the whirling blades in sunlight – “shadow flicker” – for everything from vertigo to migraine headaches.

A group of 36 people who live near the turbines has sued DeKalb County and 75 landowners who leased land for the turbines. They claim the county illegally granted zoning variances and want the turbines taken down. NextEra is seeking to dismiss the suit based on “vague allegations of hypothetical harms.”

Ken Andersen, a county board member who voted to allow the turbines to be built, says he is trying to understand the people voicing concerns. One man, he said, called at 6 a.m. and told him a turbine that sounded like a 747 jet engine was keeping him awake. Andersen said he got out of bed and drove over to listen for himself.

“I went to this man’s yard,” Andersen said. “I made more noise walking across the crunchy snow.” The turbines, he said, “were making their whoosh, whoosh, whoosh noise.”

There is debate over whether there are links between the turbines and health problems. In December, an expert panel, which included doctors, hired by the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association, national trade associations for the industry, concluded there is “no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”

But Dr. Nina Pierpont, a board-certified pediatrician in Malone, N.Y., who has spent the past four years studying so-called Wind Turbine Syndrome, insists not enough studies have been conducted to rule out any link between turbine noise and flicker shadow with health complaints.


Pierpont said low-frequency sounds from turbines can throw off a person’s sense of balance and cause unconscious reactions similar to car sickness. Sleep can also be disrupted. She said the feeling is similar to when people awake in fear, with a jolt and a racing heart.

Ben Michels’ friends say he may have the worst of it. Five turbines stand in a line behind his home, the nearest 1,430 feet away; the county restricts turbines from being any closer than that.

“I never had problems sleeping,” said Michels, a Vietnam War veteran. “I went to the (Department of Veterans Affairs) and they put me on sleeping pills. They had to continually upgrade them because they weren’t working.”

Michels, who has raised goats for 20 years and averaged one death per year, said nine have died since December. “Common sense tells me, it’s got to have something to do with the turbines,” Michels said.

DeKalb County, with a population of more than 100,000, is more densely populated than some areas where wind farms are located. NextEra chose the area, in part, for its proximity to Chicago, which benefits from the power those turbines produce, said John DiDonato, vice president of Midwest wind development for NextEra.


NextEra said 147.5 megawatts of energy produced by the DeKalb-Lee wind farm is distributed in 13 states and the District of Columbia, including Chicago and DeKalb County. Another 70 megawatts is sold to a consortium of 39 municipal electric utilities, for customers in and around northern and central Illinois.

Because the power from the turbines flows to areas of the greatest need, little goes to where it’s produced. That irony was highlighted on Christmas Eve when the lights went out in Waterman and Shabbona due to an ice storm and didn’t turn back on again for four days in some places. Meanwhile, the turbines kept cranking power to homes and businesses hundreds of miles away.

Mark Anderson, who lives in Park Ridge, Ill., and hosts two turbines on investment property he owns in Waterman, said the turbines protect farmland from urban sprawl.

For David Halverson, who leased land for two turbines in Malta, Ill., said it’s a matter of national policy – not giving U.S. dollars to foreign oil.

“I am so pro-wind that I would let them put them up for nothing,” Halverson said.

There’s also the economics. Each turbine, which takes up about 3 acres total, pays Halverson about $9,000 per year, he said.

In comparison, leasing DeKalb County farmland costs about $180 per acre per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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