Wind farms: health issues, ‘gag orders,’ property values?

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This is the last of three articles about the wind farm industry, and a proposed project in Reno County.

 

By Duane Schrag

Special to The Rural Messenger

Wind turbines may be the Rorschach test for the 21st century.

To some people, those lazily spinning blades depict a future of harmony with nature and the promise of sustainable prosperity.

Others see blades that savage birds and bats, pollute the viewscape, churn out sounds and energy fields that deprive people of sleep, cause headaches and even induce seizures, and drive down the value of real estate for miles around.

Some people point to scientific studies that conclude wind farms might cause nuisances but not genuine health problems, and none of the market studies they cite can find convincing evidence of wind farms reducing the market value of nearby property.

Others say the scope of the harm caused by wind farms is concealed by gag orders that prevent landowners who lease their property from revealing the truth about what is happening.

Wind developers say they don’t impose gag orders – just ask the landowners.

Of course landowners won’t talk about them – they have agreed not to, say the others.

Opponents of the proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm insist they are not against developing wind energy.

“We are at a point in our country where we need to look at our options for energy, and for renewable energy,” said Kristy Horsch, a mother of four girls who lives in the footprint of the proposed wind farm. “But we need to do that responsibly.”

Horsch testified at a Statehouse hearing in February before the House committee on Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications, which was considering a bill (HB 2273) that would have prevented wind turbines from being less than a mile and a half from any residence.

Health concerns

Horsch told the committee that she has done extensive research on the potential harm of living near wind turbines, and that she believes “we need to make decisions from a place of well-rounded, exhaustive knowledge and preparation.”

“I can say that my children will not be guinea pigs in this experiment,” she told the committee. “My husband and I are entrusted with their health and safety, and … we cannot stay in an area that has the potential for causing harm under this guise.”

But there has been strikingly little success in explaining how wind turbines can cause the harms that opponents fear.

A paper published in November 2014 in Frontiers in Public Health offers an explanation, making the case for what is called the “nocebo expectations hypothesis.” The nocebo effect is related to its better- known sibling, the placebo effect.

Or, if you expect to get sick, you just might.

Here’s how the paper explained the nocebo effect: “Research consistently indicates that the expectation of adverse health effects can itself produce negative health outcomes,” it said. “Negative expectations generating nocebo responses have been shown to have a powerful influence on health outcomes in clinical populations, and reported symptom experiences in community samples.”

The paper lists symptoms frequently associated with living near wind farms: sleep disturbance, headache, earache, tinnitus, nausea, dizziness, heart palpitations, vibrations within the body, aching joints, blurred vision, upset stomach, and short-term memory problems.

Becoming familiar with the list can have an effect.

“Simply reading about symptoms of an illness can prompt self-detection of disease-specific symptoms, a phenomenon seen in medical student disease,” the paper noted. It has been noted that medical students learning about an illness start to experience symptoms of the disease.

Property values

Several said property value studies conclude that wind farms can reduce residential home values by as much as 40 percent.

Kimberly Gencur Svaty, a wind industry lobbyist, testified that she had been given a study of property values in all 21 Kansas counties with wind farms.

“There was no market evidence to support a negative impact upon residential property values as a result of development of or proximity to a wind farm, and there was no reduction in assessed value,” Svaty said. “I can get you that data.”

The study by Marous and Associates is available at  neoshoridgewind.com/property_value_report.

Marous and Associates focused on the Neosho Ridge Wind Farm, and seems similar to studies it has done for wind farm developers across the country.

The consultant contacted county appraisers, but the study offers no record of exactly what they were asked, or their responses. Appraisers contacted for this story said there were no property sales to evaluate, largely because the wind farm footprint contained so few homes.

Opponents of the proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm note that the Reno County project area is significantly more populated that other wind farms in Kansas. A review of 2010 Census data shows that there are about three times as many people per turbine in the project as there are in Kingman, Pratt and Marion county wind farms.

Some appraisers said they are certain proximity to wind farms would make homes less marketable.

The study also attempts to show that wind farms don’t impair property values by comparing sales information on four homes (on in Coffey, Harper, Pratt and Ford counties) that were close to wind farms, and comparing each to the sale of a similar home that was not close to a wind farm.

This use of so-called matched pairs is dismissed by skeptics as an opportunity to cherry-pick data to support one side or the other. Here is how federal judge Frank Easterbrook put it in an opinion that addressed the value of property that lay in the path of a pipeline:

“What puzzles us is why both sides were fixated on pairwise comparisons—that is, matching each subject parcel with a supposedly ‘comparable’ parcel … and then comparing the appraised value of the ‘matched’ parcel with the appraised values of the subject parcel with a pipeline easement. That process is full of problems. No other parcel will be identical to the subject parcel except for its lack of a transmission-corridor easement. Location and other attributes always differ, setting the stage for debate about whether an appropriate comparison has been selected.”

On the other hand, supporters of the bill did not include in their testimony details of studies they say show a decline in property values.

A majority of evidence in scientific journals appears to show that wind farms do not have a negative impact on property values.

A study published in July 2014 in the journal Energy Economics examined the impacts of wind turbines in urban areas of Rhode Island. It analyzed 48,500 transactions, with 3,250 involving homes within one mile of a turbine.

“The results suggest that wind turbines have no statistically significant negative impacts on house prices, in either the post public announcement phase or post construction phase,” the study concluded.

Closer to Kansas, a study published last year in the International Journal of Housing Markets and Analysis looked at 23,000 residential real estate records in five Oklahoma counties with wind farms.

“While there may be isolated instances of lower property values for homes near wind turbines, results show no significant decreases in property values over homes near wind farms in the study area,” the study found.

A paper published in August 2012 in the journal Land Economics found otherwise. It looked at 11,300 property transactions over nine years in northern New York state, and concluded that “nearby wind facilities significantly reduce property values in two of the three counties studied. These results indicate that existing compensation to local homeowners/communities may not be sufficient to prevent a loss of property values.”

Gag orders

Confidentiality agreements are not uncommon, particularly when a developer is negotiating with many individuals for use or acquisition of their land. The developer wants to get the best deal possible from each individual.

How are landowners paid for turbines on their property? It depends.

There are estimates. Spencer Jenkins, a developer for NextEra Energy, told a House committee in February that NextEra’s Pratt County wind farm will pay landowners $1.5 million each year. For 109 turbines, that is $14,000 per turbine.

However, wind farm opponents say some of these agreements go beyond standard confidentiality clauses. They allege the agreements impose “gag orders” that can stifle information about health problems arising from proximity to wind farms.

NextEra initially said it does nothing of the sort.

“I want to reiterate that nothing prohibits landowners from discussing our projects, which many landowners do freely at public meetings,” wrote Conlan Kennedy, a NextEra spokesman, in an email. In a telephone interview he said, “We do not restrict them from speaking out.”

A lobbyist for wind energy claimed to have never heard of gag orders. The American Wind Energy Association didn’t respond when asked for a comment on the prevalence of such clauses.

But here’s what was shared with people who attended an informational meeting in February organized by opponents of the proposed Reno County wind farm. The wording purportedly came from a contract between NextEra and a landowner in another Kansas County.

“The Parties agree not to make any statements, written or verbal, … that defame, disparage or in any way criticize the personal or business reputation, practices, or conduct of the other party, its employees, directors and officers.” It goes on to provide an allowable response.

“[Either party], if approached, has the right to state ‘we had an issue and that the issue has been resolved to our satisfaction.’”

When shown this particular language, NextEra said it does not appear in wind lease agreements, but “language is used in ‘participation agreements’ signed by neighbors.

“A participation agreement is voluntary and offered to certain landowners in close proximity to the Pretty Prairie wind project,” wrote Conlan Kennedy, a NextEra spokesman, in an email. “The landowner is offered a participation agreement even though they do not host any actual wind farm infrastructure on their property. The landowner receives an annual payment as consideration for being a ‘participant’ in the project. As with any contract there are certain terms both sides agree to abide by.”

The gag order is one of them. Participation agreements pay around $1,000 a year.

Participating takes the form of granting NextEra what is termed an “effects easement.” The document enumerates a variety of phenomena that might be associated with your neighbor’s wind turbines – “audio, visual, view, light, flicker, noise, shadow, vibration, air turbulence, wake, electromagnetic, electrical and radio frequency interference, and other effects attributable to the wind farm …”

“By granting NextEra an easement for those effects, neighbors forfeit any right they might have had to be compensated if they experience any of them,.” said Stan Juhnke, an attorney in Hutchinson.

Over the years, Juhnke has seen many wind lease contracts, and they have always been restrictive, he said.

“I basically told my clients, “You are, in effect, selling the property. It’s a long-term lease; you’re giving up your right to use it as you see fit.” he said..

With the “effects easement” the adjacent landowner gives up something new.

“You are giving up your rights to sue for damages that may be caused by those things,” he said.

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Duane Schrag has been writing about Kansas for more than 25 years, with special expertise in science, technology and the environment.

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Guest Editorial by Duane Schrag

 

Some people think wind turbines are lovely. They possess purity of function, simple geometric shapes that signal, with each slow rotation, the vast invisible energy all around us.

Not everyone shares this appreciation. To some, the great fans are a blight on the landscape; they are noisy, a source of incessant movement. Some even suspect they radiate harmful energy.

Intense opposition to the proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm in southeast Reno County is unsurprising. It has given rise to hostility and suspicion. Some of this is understandable, some is deserved.

At the core of the controversy is an inconvenient truth: our appetite for energy is boundless. Energy is opportunity and when it is available, it is consumed quickly. All organisms, whether plant or animal, neglecting opportunity quickly became extinct.

Until humans discovered highly dense energy – first coal, then oil – they didn’t gain much traction. Current estimates are that 2,000 years ago – about 10,000 years after agriculture was invented – Earth’s human population was around 300 million. By the Middle Ages it was roughly 750 million. Coal emerged as the chief energy source in the 1700s, and the first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled in 1879.

By 1900, Earth’s population was 1.7 billion. It has now passed 7.5 billion. The discovery of incredibly cheap, dense energy made this possible. Producing this energy, much of it in the past century, suddenly released carbon that had been removed from the atmosphere over millions of years. It was humans’ bad luck that  atmospheric carbon affects the rate at which Earth’s heat dissipates into space.

And so here we are: addicted to staggering quantities of energy, with carbon emissions from energy use that keep climbing (by more than 10 percent since 2010) and atmospheric carbon levels that are 30 percent higher than ever seen in the past one million years.

Hence wind farms.

They are making a difference. As this is being written, strong winds are blowing in the central United States, and half the power put onto the central grid comes from wind farms (coal- and gas-fired power plants are contributing less than 40 percent). It is estimated that last year, wind farms for the first time generated more energy in Kansas than coal-fired power plants.

Some critics argue that the push for renewable energy in the United States is futile because carbon emissions from other nations are growing. China’s carbon emissions passed those of the United States in 2006 and now are double.

But it’s also true that per capita carbon emissions in China are less than half those in the U.S. And because carbon remains in the atmosphere for centuries, aggregate emissions matter – so far the United States has pumped twice as much carbon into the atmosphere as China.

This is not the time to abandon efforts to wean ourselves from fossil-based energy. Instead, it’s a good time to examine how we get it done.

Contrary to popular belief, studies show that wind has become the cheapest source of energy. Even without subsidies, it is cheaper than a fully depreciated coal-fired plant. This analysis does not factor in the societal cost of pumping more carbon into the atmosphere.

But at the same time, the total costs of implementing wind must also be counted.

The old question, whether a tree falling in the wood makes a sound if no one hears it, now has a cousin: Are wind turbines a blight on the landscape if nobody sees them?

Probably not. The corollary is, they are a blight to some citizens in populated areas. Compensation goes only to the owners of the land on which the turbines are built. That’s not fair to everyone else who happens upon them.

If wind developers were required to compensate communities, based on the density of surrounding population, development would be steered toward less populated areas.

Some might find functioning wind farms pleasing, but surely everyone agrees abandoned turbines are a ghastly sight. The logistics and cost of removing these behemoths – some in Kansas are nearly as tall as the St. Louis Arch – are formidable. Wind developers promise to remove them when they are no longer used, but promises are worthless if a developer is insolvent. How can we be certain there will be  money to remove lifeless turbines in 30 or 50 years?

Here’s how – require the developer to put money into an escrow. The state should have the authority to demand and enforce that.

Another hurdle is the odious strategy by wind developers to rely on confidentiality clauses, even gag orders. Counties entertaining wind farm proposals should demand that all contract language be revealed during the application process. The public interest is never served by secrecy.

Wind farms can be – ought to be – in the public interest.

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Letter to the Editor By Dan Demming

There’s a growing perception that Reno County Commissioners have had enough and are no longer interested in hearing public comments on the pending decision of building a wind farm near Haven.  I am relatively sure this isn’t true but it isn’t surprising.  An unfortunate, misguided decision was made cutting off taxpayer input before an upcoming planning board public hearing.   Even more grievous was a  ruling that commissioners will not take public comments when they consider the planners’ recommendation, only re-viewing summaries.

The commission needs to reverse that decision and hear personally from everyone wanting to express an opinion when they take up the planning board’s decision.   That’s the way it’s been in the past and the proper way Hutchinson City Council members handle planning recommendations, allowing public comments when considering their planning board’s recommendation.   Frankly, it’s the only way to restore confidence that publicly elected and paid officials are willing to take the time and interest in hearing from all parties before critical, life and property impacting decisions are made.

   Reno County has excellent, well qualified planning board members and staff.  But these are appointed, not elected officials, and citizens should be able to make arguments directly to their elected officials because they are the only ones directly responsible to voters.  To do otherwise places too much power into the hands of those not answerable to those who put them into office.

   With decisions like the county commission recently made, it’s no wonder so many citizens distrust and oppose government when they are told they have  no right or opportunity to express themselves at decision making time.  Not everyone with an interest in issues coming before the planning board can attend their meetings.  At the very least those not able to speak at a public hearing should be given a chance to express themselves.  In addition, as noted in one of several Western Front letters on this subject, written transcripts of what was said cannot convey the emotion or true sincerity of what some say. 

The commission’s decision to restrict and greatly limit speech not only on the vitally important wind farm decision but all future planning and zoning issues seems largely influenced by County Counselor Joe O’Sullivan who has long wanted to restrict these public discussions,  citing the quasi-judicial nature of these decisions.   O’Sullivan has an overly cautious and highly technical view of how these matters should be handled that is obviously not shared by how Hutchinson city officials manage similar situations and how a number of other counties approach allowing public comments before planning board recommendations are acted upon.

While most readers will never personally go before the county commission on a zoning matter everyone has a vital interest in making certain government listens at every level to citizen/taxpayer input before arriving at a final decision.  That’s why those interested and concerned about good, responsive, willing to listen government should insist, as others have rightfully suggested, that this policy be reversed or amend-ed to enable a more free flow of public comment.

O’Sullivan’s fear that commissioners should strictly only consider arguments made before planners to avoid a lawsuit is misguided because of the over-riding need to have less restrictive, open and receptive local government.  Besides that, the wind farm issue, which unjustifiably prompted the restrictions, is likely to wind up in a lawsuit regardless of whether it is approved or rejected.

This new policy fosters mistrust in government at a time when it should be encouraging not limiting public access and participation.  That’s something all of us should be fighting for. The  current commission can easily correct what is happening by simply admitting a mistake and turning what one observed termed “not your finest hour” into a solid step for public confidence and renewed trust in local decision making.

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About the Pretty Prairie project:

– The proposed Pretty Prairie Wind Farm is expected to consist of more than 80 wind turbines; the developer, NextEra Energy, asked the Federal Aviation Administration to evaluate 91 turbine sites to ensure they are not a hazard to aircraft.

– NextEra has said the turbines will be capable of generating 220 MW when operating at maximum capacity. One megawatt – or 1 million watts – if generated continuously can power 840 homes. Historically, Kansas wind farms generate about 40 percent of their rated capacity (because the wind doesn’t blow continuously). Based on that, the wind farm would produce enough to electricity to power 75,000 households.

– Last year, a Boston-based company, Iron Mountain, announced that it signed a 15-year power purchase agreement with NextEra to take 145 MW of electricity from the Pretty Prairie Wind Farm. A spokesman for NextEra said it has also signed a power agreement with Home Depot for 15 MW.

– The current cost of fuel required to generate the wind farm’s annual power output is about $700,000.

– In Kansas, wind farms are exempt from property taxes for 10 years. Based on industry estimates of wind farm construction costs (NextEra declined to say how much it will spend building the wind farm), NextEra will save approximately $56 million in property taxes during that period.

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