Wind energy is a growing industry in Indiana, but not every community is receptive to the development. Tippecanoe County is working on a proposal to ban wind farms, and Montgomery County is in the midst of an intense debate over two proposed farms.
No matter who you ask, wind turbines are a touchy subject in Montgomery County.
“I think there really needs to be some real research on what is a safe setback for a specific height and for the capacity of a turbine,” resident April Johnson says.
She’s a member of the group No Wind Farm Montgomery County. The group meets regularly to discuss two proposed industrial wind farms in the area.
Wind companies need residents to sign leases before turbines may be built on their property. The landowner gets some money, and the company gets cash from selling energy back to the grid. And while Johnson’s group is growing in numbers, some local landowners are signing leases with wind businesses Apex and Akuo Energy.
Apex hasn’t determined the number of turbines it wants, but is looking at models nearly 600 feet tall. Akuo plans to have 37 turbines, each under 500 feet tall.
Johnson says she’s worried about what they might do to the community. She says she’s worried about the noise generated by turbines that size.
“This is a noise that won’t go away, all night long. And if I did this,” she says, demonstrating with claps, “you’re going to get really annoyed. If I did this the whole meeting. You’re going to try to listen to me talk, and figure out, what is she saying? And you’re going to be like, I wish that woman would just stop. But that’s what we would be living with.”
Residents asked commissioners to lower turbine noise limits, and also voiced concern about infrasound – soundwaves produced by turbines at frequencies too low to hear.
So commissioners brought in Keith Kluender, the head of Purdue’s Department of Speech, Hearing & Language Sciences, to address those concerns.
The county’s initial noise limit for turbines was 60 dB, and residents were asking to drop that to 30 dB.
“And I could explain to them, while I can’t tell you whether that’s annoying or not, that’s 8 dB less than the average library, which is 38 dB,” Kluender says. “In fact, that was less than just having their window open on a very, very quiet night, assuming there are no insects or wind.”
Kluender says the math for decibels works a little differently: every time a sound drops six decibels, it’s being cut in half. He says the halfway point between 0 dB and 60 dB would really be around 54 dB.
The county settled on a limit of 50 dB, which is roughly a quarter of the noise allowed under the original ordinance.
Kluender says that’s in line with most regulations across the country.
Residents also voiced concerns about infrasound – or soundwaves at frequencies too low for humans to hear. Wind turbines produce those soundwaves, but so do cars, trains and the motors in many household objects.
Both the American Wind Energy Association and the World Health Organization say that decibel measurements don’t accurately represent infrasound, which can be difficult to block.
But Kluender says while he can’t say for sure that infrasound doesn’t hurt people, there’s no evidence that proves it does right now.
“Whatever the effect of infrasound, the hazards to health are much, much less than most of the ways we produce electricity,” he says.
In Benton County, where they’ve had turbines for more than a decade, County Economic Development Director Paul Jackson says they don’t hear many complaints.
“Not saying you can’t hear them, but no, we don’t have a lot of people complaining about noise levels and such,” he says.
Jackson provides presentations for other counties on the benefits of wind farms, and gives tours that take people within 100 feet of one.
He says the farms have brought in about $35 million since the first one started operating in 2007. He says they might not make sense for every community, but they’ve worked for Benton County.
“Rural counties like we are with 8,700 people, we don’t have the tax base to actually create, generate the kind of money that Tippecanoe County does,” Jackson says.
Tippecanoe County’s ordinance committee has passed a proposal to ban industrial wind farms. The Area Plan Commission will review it this month.
Commissioner Tom Murtaugh argues long-term leases for turbines lock up land for decades, limiting opportunities to develop it.
“And it seems irresponsible to tie up that significant amount of acreage in a county where we’re booming, where we’re growing by leaps and bounds,” Murtaugh says.
He says the county has received dozens of letters from residents wanting to ban industrial wind farms, compared to just a handful in support of them.
Tippecanoe County resident Bob Hall signed a lease with Apex on property he owns in Montgomery County, and wants the ability to do the same at his home.
He says wind offers additional revenue for as long as the turbine is operational.
“That’s a good thing. My children, our children will be able to have money for retirement, and then the grandchildren will have income from it also,” Hall says.
But April Johnson says the money isn’t worth the trouble turbines cause.
“We have the privilege of living in the country for the peace and quiet. And I have never heard anyone say, ‘I will sell my property to go and live in the middle of a wind farm,’” she says.
Chris Pattison, a professor at Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute, says it’s difficult to scientifically prove – or disprove -- whether turbines cause any physical symptoms.
“People who live within a wind energy project that are making royalties have fewer complaints than people who live on the edges and aren’t making royalties,” he says.
There are no state or federal regulations for wind farm noise or setbacks. Pattison says counties need to create their own based on what makes sense for their area.
“It has to be a group effort by the community,” Pattison says.
Johnson and other residents say that isn’t happening in Montgomery County.
Commissioners are still negotiating contracts with both wind companies and no longer allow public comment on wind farms unless it’s on the meeting agenda.
County council member Mark Davidson has asked for a moratorium to study the impact of the farms, but says commissioners haven’t responded.
He says the council supported wind farms initially, but that opinion has changed.
“The moratorium would be what we would be hoping would be the first dagger. And I’m just being honest,” Davidson says. “That would be the first step to prove that they’re not good.”
Davidson says neither the companies nor the commissioners have been open about the details of the proposed farms.
“Zero. Nothing,” Davidson says. “Not to the council, and not to the citizenry.”
County Commissioner John Frey says he can’t talk about the projects yet.
“I don’t know what to say, I honestly don’t,” he says. “There’s not much – I can’t give any details of what we’re negotiating.”
But he says county officials are listening to the community.
“There’s been a lot of suggestions from the community that we don’t comment on, but we’re acting on and have been acting on, and to think we’re not, you know,” he says. “You wish you could tell them.”
One sticking point is that the county doesn’t have any zoning laws or a comprehensive plan. Those are in the works, but it’s unclear when they will be approved.
An Akuo spokesperson says the company has met with potential Montgomery County leaseholders during the land procurement process. Apex Energy declined to comment.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Montgomery County had changed its wind ordinance to a noise limit of 48 dB. The county actually changed the limit to 50 dB.