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Avangrid : Ohioans divided over wind turbines

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10/01/2017 | 06:00am CET

PAYNE, Ohio (AP) — From the ground, the narrow aluminum ladder might as well extend to infinity. Actual height: 290 feet.

A videographer straps on a protective harness, hard hat and safety glasses, joined by two employees of the farm’s operator, EDP Renewables. They are about to climb inside one of 55 wind turbines at Timber Road II wind farm in Paulding County.

The first steps are easy, even with 10 pounds of cameras and other gear.

Just resist the urge to look up — or down.

“The first thing that really hits you (is) the size in general, the gravity of just how much machinery goes into putting these things together,” said Jeremy Chenoweth, an EDP operations manager whose territory includes all of Ohio, and who made the climb.

Wind farms are a big, and growing, business in Ohio. They’re a part of the state’s clean-energy economy that has gone from near zero to more than $1 billion worth of spending in the past 10 years, with the potential to grow fourfold if every announced project is built.

But some neighbors view the turbines as an affront, spoiling the landscape with noise, the flicker of shadows from turbine blades and blinking red lights.

The state’s wind farms are all in northwestern Ohio, but regulators have approved others just outside of the Columbus metro area, with projects planned for Crawford, Champaign, Hardin and Logan counties. Still more are in the pre-development stage.

So the debate about wind energy could be coming to your neighborhood.

Inside the wind tower, the climb takes about an hour, and the final steps are a strain. Muscles ache. Clothes are soaked with sweat.

But there is a reward. At the very top is a school bus-size room that holds a generator and control equipment.

On the ceiling is a clear plastic hatch that one of the EDP guys pops open.

Then, blue sky.

Fort Wayne, Indiana, is visible 22 miles to the west. And, if you stop to focus, you see the tiny rectangles of houses on farms and along rural roadways.

One of those houses belongs to Brenda DeLong, 61, who feels like an essential part of her life — the outdoors around her home — has been taken away from her.

“It’s just very annoying, very unpleasant,” she said, interviewed on her front porch.

She lives on a lot that has been in her family for generations and was once part of her parents’ farm. Now, she has a view of Blue Creek Wind Farm, the state’s largest, along with parts of the Timber Road farms.

Near dusk on a Thursday, she begins to count the turbines. After a walk around the house, she is finished with 114, 115, 116.

She is a retired fourth-grade teacher and now spends most of her time volunteering for 4-H, the Red Cross and her church.

From her porch, she hears a near-constant sound, like a plane flying overhead, from the turbines. On some mornings and evenings, when the sun is behind the turbines, she sees a flicker of shadows on the walls of her house.

Avangrid, the Oregon-based company that owns Blue Creek, says it has solid community support and also works to respond to concerns of residents who do not like the turbines.

“This is a project that has roughly 250 participating landowners and that reflects a lot of effort to talk to a lot of people in the community, at kitchen tables and in living rooms and in public meetings,” said Paul Copleman, an Avangrid spokesman.

A few miles north and east of DeLong’s house is Wayne Trace High School, a rural school consolidated from three communities. Here, wind energy is a godsend, providing 11 percent of local tax revenue in the K-12 budget.

“We just don’t have a lot of people seeking out the district for large industry,” said Ben Winans, the district’s superintendent. “The wind industry is one thing we can have.”

His district received $706,923 in taxes from wind turbines in the 2016-17 budget year. The wind money has allowed the district to increase staffing without raising taxes.

Money also flows into the community through lease payments from turbine developers to people who allow turbines to be built on their property. The payments vary, but are often in the range of $10,000 per turbine per year.

Another type of contract is a neighbor agreement, which is for people who are near wind farms but have no turbines on their land. In signing such a contract, residents are saying they will not object to the project in exchange for annual payments that are often in the $1,000 range.

The competing interests collide in an ongoing debate about how much distance should be required between the turbines and nearby property lines.

In 2014, Ohio Senate Republican leaders expanded the required distance by making a last-minute amendment to an unrelated budget bill. The provision was largely in response to citizen concerns about wind farms.

Wind-industry advocates warned that the result would be a virtual halt in development. However, projects that already were approved could go forward using the old rules, which has accounted for nearly all construction since then.

Supporters of wind energy, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, have repeatedly tried and failed to pass rules that are more wind-friendly and warned that investment might soon shift to other states. The current proposal is Senate Bill 188, sponsored by Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, whose district includes most of the wind farms. The bill would allow construction of wind turbines within about 600 feet of property lines, which is down from about 1,300 feet under the 2014 amendment.

For DeLong and her friends, Hite has become the face of the pro-wind crowd. She notes that there is no wind farm near his home.

“If he lived near them, it would be different,” she said.

Hite had this response: “I would put one in my backyard if I could.”

People will disagree about whether that would be a pleasant view. Meanwhile, the opposite view, from the top of the turbine, is breathtaking.

© © 2017 AIM Media Midwest Operating, LLC., source Newspapers

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