It was mid-February when dozens of rural residents in the rolling hills of northwestern Boone County received mysterious letters.
Ashley Ernst, whose farm spans 270 acres south of Harrisburg, said the letters contained a proposition: E.ON Climate & Renewables was offering contracts to landowners who agreed to allow the company to erect wind turbines on their property. The company is targeting an area of Boone County spanning at least 20,000 acres and plans to develop a wind farm that would generate 200 megawatts of electricity.
The letter said E.ON had already contracted with the owners of land comprising 2,500 acres.
At first, Ernst felt neutral about the offer, but she came to a decision after calling her neighbors and researching similar projects.
“It would really be heartbreaking to have to listen to the constant thumping of wind turbines,” Ernst said .
Ernst and a few other residents started the group Concerned Citizens for the Future of Boone County MO to advocate against the E.ON wind project. On its Facebook page, the group shares firsthand accounts, news articles and other information about wind farms and turbines.
Members of the group were among about 150 people who attended a barbecue and informational meeting that E.ON hosted in March. Not all local residents are opposed to the wind farm; some were simply looking for more information.
Brent Voorheis is among those who like the company’s plan. In fact, Voorheis already has a contract with E.ON that allowed it to build a meteorological tower on his land to test wind conditions. He has also agreed to allow wind turbines on his property if the company goes ahead with the project.
Ernst and Voorheis are on opposite sides of a debate that will play out in the months to come. E.ON’s wind project has a long way to go before it becomes reality. Not only must it persuade an ample number of landowners to sign up for wind turbines, but it also will have to deal with any regulations the Boone County Planning & Zoning Commission develops. Then there’s the matter of finding customers to buy the energy it generates.
E.ON spokesperson Matt Tulis said the company will need one to two years worth of data from meteorological towers before it can determine whether the wind conditions are favorable for turbines. That’s the most important of several factors E.ON weighs when deciding where to build.
“We are looking for three basic things: good wind resources, places to sell power to and community support from landowners and officials,” he said.
E.ON is interested in investing around Harrisburg because rural areas often attract little investment, he said.
“We don’t want farmers to stop using their property,” Tulis said. “We look at wind turbines as an addition to what they’re already doing.”
It’s a warm spring day, and Ernst is busy cleaning fleece from her sheep in a pot of hot water and soap, the first steps toward making yarn. She’s also listening to the birds chatter.
“The birds are amazing,” she said. “They will do this all year long. Even in the dead of winter, when it’s super cold, you can hear a bird singing.”
Ernst and her husband, John Ernst , raise not only sheep but also beef and dairy cattle, horses, a miniature pony and mule, and chickens on their land. Their home lies at the end of a long gravel driveway. Perche Creek meanders through green pastures and wooded hills.
Ernst worries the noise and flashing lights that would come with wind turbines could do harm to wildlife and break the peace she enjoys out in the country.
What’s more important, she believes, is that wind turbines aren’t as environmentally friendly as they might seem. She said they’re built using nonrenewable resources and don’t generate enough power to be worthwhile.
“My biggest issues now are that I don’t feel we have enough wind in Missouri to justify putting in a turbine,” she said.
Tulis said the number and type of turbines E.ON will use for the wind farm haven’t been decided. When a landowner signs a contract, the company buys the right to harvest wind resources on the property and can control the type of turbine installed, he said. He wouldn’t say whether the company has new contracts beyond those for the 2,500 acres it cited in its February letter.
Tulis conceded wind turbines make noise, but he said it’s comparable to a refrigerator’s buzz and that the wind is often louder. The flashing red lights on top of turbines are there to alert passing planes.
E.ON, which is headquartered in Germany, already operates 23 wind farms in the United States with a capacity for producing a total of 3,800 megawatts of power. Seventeen of its farms are in Texas. It also has three in Illinois and one each in New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana.
Some of the turbines E.ON uses stand more than 400 feet tall. It’s largest U.S. wind-power facility is in Roscoe, Texas, and features 209 turbines.
Concerned Citizens members have compiled a long list of questions they want the company to address about wind turbines in general and its plans for Boone County. They want to know about the potential effects on public health, wildlife, land value and rural life. The group also has several contractual and political questions, including concerns about the amount of tax dollars generated in the county and whether the company will cover damage to roads that happens during construction.
Ernst has been supplying noMowind.org signs to residents opposed to the wind farm. The signs advertise the group’s website, which remains under development. About 80 homes have the signs in their yards thus far, she said.
Kathleen Van Roekel, a Harrisburg resident, put a sign on her property off of Route J.
“We had four, but our friends all wanted them,” she said. “I’ve never seen something divide a community so fast.”
Sealing a deal
Voorheis had the meteorological tower winched up on his 700-acre cattle farm north of Columbia in December. If E.ON follows through with its plans, each 3-megawatt tower the company puts on his land would take up about an acre, with access roads and concrete pads factored in.
The company would pay him roughly $4,000 per megawatt that the turbines produce. That would be $12,000 to $14,000 per acre, Voorheis said.
“I don’t know anything — that’s legal — that would generate $13,000 an acre,” he said.
Voorheis’ son-in-law, Jake Lederle, a partner with the law firm firm of Wetsel, Carmichael, Allen & Lederle in Sweetwater, Texas, specializing in wind energy, turned Voorheis onto the idea after “having an adult beverage — maybe more than one” — with his classmate, who worked for E.ON.
Voorheis went to his father, R.E. Voorheis, who originally bought their farm, to get his blessing.
“Well, Brent, what are you gonna do with this farm when something happens to me?” his father asked. “I know my time is growing near.”
Voorheis assured his dad that he’d continue raising cattle, just like they’ve done since the start.
“That’s good,” his father said. “I would hate to see this farm that your mother and I put together sold off into 10-acre tracts and growing houses.”
Roughly four months after that conversation, Voorheis and E.ON had worked out the terms of a lease. The meteorological tower was assembled flat on the ground and winched up in two hours. In the midst of a pasture dotted with cattle, the tower stands 199 feet tall and features concave scoops that spin in the wind to measure whether there’s enough of it to make the investment in turbines viable.
“I’ve had someone say they didn’t like the looks of this tower,” Voorheis said, “(but) it’s just another tower.”
Although Voorheis is aware that some of his neighbors don’t want a wind farm in the area, he sees it as a step toward the future.
“There’s fear of the unknown, fear to change,” he said, comparing it to President Franklin Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Act. “I wonder how many people said, ‘We don’t need electricity out in the county. Let them keep that in town.’”
The property taxes E.ON would pay would be a boost to Boone County taxing entities, including the county itself as well as school districts and the Boone County Fire Protection District. Voorheis, a 24-year veteran of the Harrisburg School Board, says that’s a good thing.
“I wouldn’t have started this if I didn’t think it would have been a good deal,” Voorheis said. “I did it because I thought it would be a benefit for the community.”
Planning for wind power
One challenge E.ON faces is complying with Boone County zoning regulations, although the zoning code makes no mention of wind farms or turbines.
Stan Shawver, Boone County resource management director, is the lead land-use planner for the county. He said wind turbines normally would have to be built on land zoned for industrial use. It wouldn’t be practical, however, for the county to rezone thousands of acres of agricultural land.
Shawver, his staff and the Boone County Planning & Zoning Commission are trying to figure out how to regulate wind farms. One option is to require landowners who want turbines on their property to get conditional use permits that would allow them to have a restricted industrial structure on their agricultural property. Another idea is to establish an overlay district, which would designate a particular area for special uses not anticipated by their existing zoning. That would avoid the need for public hearings on conditional use permits every time they’re requested.
E.ON has had no contact with Shawver’s office except for its request to erect the meteorological tower. Shawver said it’s too soon to know whether wind turbines will come to Boone County . But large-scale wind farms are already operating in northwestern Missouri, and more are in the works in other parts of the state.
Boone County Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson said her office received tons of feedback after E.ON sent its letters in February. That, she said, didn’t go over well.
“That really lit some people up, so to speak,” she said. “They were all concerned that it would happen immediately.”
The amount of feedback has quieted since then. Thompson said she’s heard from people on all sides of the debate. Some worry that E.ON’s project could be a disappointment, while others say the tax dollars it would generate would be a boon to schools.
Thompson will wait until after the planning commission weighs its options and gathers more public input to decide whether wind farms are right for Boone County.
“At that point, we could hear more public opinion,” she said, “and the issues would be more crystallized.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.