Wind turbine near mature corn

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The public divide over wind farms starts with the term itself.

Atchison County in the northwest corner of Missouri is home to what, thus far, is the largest wind-power project in the state. A landowner and a business leader see the wind turbines as bright white, spinning beacons of hope for a sparsely populated area struggling with economic development.

In DeKalb County, less than 100 miles to the southeast, there are those who reject the term “wind farm.” The turbines that stand as tall as 500 feet, to them, are really industrial towers.

The stark differences of opinion in northwest Missouri emerged at the very start of the projects. Some residents praise wind farms for their economic benefits, the taxes they pay and their generation of what they see as clean, renewable energy. Others say the turbines are unsightly health hazards that are hard on people, wildlife and property values.

Gauging the impact of wind farms on these two Missouri counties is difficult, but it's a good way to at least begin to assess how a plan to develop a wind farm spanning 20,000 acres or more near Harrisburg might play out.

E.ON Climate & Renewables has approached dozens of landowners in northwestern Boone County about erecting wind turbines on their properties. Some residents are pleased by the prospect of profit. Others though, worry that a wind farm at that scale would ruin their rural lifestyles, the Columbia Missourian reported.

People on both sides are scrambling to gather as many facts as they can. Meanwhile, the Boone County Planning & Zoning Commission is just beginning to grapple with how wind farms and turbines might be regulated by a zoning code that currently doesn't address them.

Monica Bailey has a small model wind turbine sitting on her desk at work.

Bailey, executive director of Atchison County Development Corp., has spent years working to bring opportunity to her corner of the state. To her, wind farms are a “breath of life” in a county that is home to fewer than 5,500 people.

“We don't have the capacity for a huge factory,” Bailey said. “So these farms provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Bailey said the main complaints she's heard from her Atchison County neighbors is that the wind turbines are ugly and change the landscape.

“The skyline isn't as pretty anymore,” she conceded. “But I think people are willing to put up with it because of the benefits.”

The Rock Creek Wind Farm, which consists of 150 turbines scattered across 30,000 acres and about 100 properties, brings in around $1.5 million in tax revenue to Atchison County every year. Two other wind farms are also paying property taxes, according to the Atchison County Development Corp. The money goes to the county and to school, fire and ambulance districts.

“We don't get the chance for that kind of revenue anywhere else,” Bailey said.

Rock Creek, owned by Enel Green Power North America, began operating in November 2017 and generates 300 megawatts of power.

The Atchison County wind farms sell their energy to publicly owned utilities such as Kansas City Power & Light. Ameren, another public utility, plans to buy the next wind farm being developed in Atchison County. Under current state law, Ameren would pay property taxes to the state instead of the county. The state distributes revenue based on the location of the utility's power lines rather than where the turbines are.

“If that were to happen, the conversation in Atchison will change,” Bailey said. “Most people only like the farms because of the money they bring in. We should be able to tax them here.”

The tax issue drove state Rep. Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, to file House Bill 220, which would require wind energy projects owned by public utilities to be assessed locally, keeping the revenue in the counties where the turbines stand. Andrews' district includes Atchison County. The bill passed in the General Assembly during the last week of the session and will become law if Gov. Mike Parson signs it.

While there are currently no publicly owned wind turbines, the bill is a proactive attempt to ensure local entities continue to collect taxes from wind farms. Andrews said it's “a big thing for rural Missouri.''

Tarkio and Westboro are decidedly agricultural communities. These days, however, many of the farms in the area are harvesting wind along with corn and soybeans.

Steve Klute said wind is just a different sort of crop.

Growing up outside Tarkio, Klute always knew he wanted to be a farmer. His farm has been in his family since 1920 and spans 1,750 acres. Klute, his father and his eldest son all work the land.

The Klute farm is home to nine wind turbines and a meteorological tower.

“It's changed everything around here for the better,” Klute said of the wind power industry.

Klute also sits on the Tarkio R-1 School Board, which used the new revenue from wind farms to give teachers a raise. He said living close to the turbines is like “living near a highway or railroad.” He doesn't mind.

But Kim Tindel and Johni Walker take offense when people refer to the wind-energy projects as farms.

“There's nothing agricultural about them,” Walker said.

Tindel and Walker are members of Concerned Citizens of DeKalb County, which organized to educate people about the impact of wind turbines.

DeKalb Presiding County Commissioner Kyle Carroll said residents' frustration is born in part of the fact that the residents had “very little say in the matter.” Dekalb County has no county-wide zoning restrictions, so NextEra and other wind-power companies have been free to do what they want in parts of the county.

Because DeKalb County offered no tax incentives to the wind companies, there were no public hearings like those in Atchison County. The companies' individual contracts are private, and some include clauses prohibiting people from talking about the compensation they receive for having turbines on their land.

Tindel said she's called the Osborn Wind Farm's office “over a hundred times'' complaining about the noise the turbines make and the lights on top of them.

Residents also complain about “shadow flickering,” which happens when a turbine's spinning blades intermittently block the sun over and over again, causing a flicker effect that Tindel has documented in videos recorded near homes, on roads and in fields.

While studies have shown that the speed of wind turbine shadow flicker is often too slow to cause seizures, some people have reported headaches, nausea and dizziness.

The destruction of roads and land that came with the development of wind farms wasn't an easy pill to swallow for residents of Atchison or DeKalb counties. Even Klute, who loves the wind farms, described the construction as “hell.”

Although wind-energy projects in Missouri have gained their foothold in the northwest, they're beginning to blow across the landscape. Ameren has plans for a large wind farm in the northeast, and E.ON Climate & Renewables has its sights set on Boone County.

Residents near Harrisburg were surprised to hear of E.ON's plans, which most learned about through letters inviting them to a community barbecue where they could get information about the wind farm and how they might get turbines erected on their properties. The letter said the company already had contracts with landowners spanning 2,500 acres.