In northwest Indiana, about 30 miles from Lafayette, neighbors live with giants.
Nearly 400 square miles of Benton County is pristine farm land where more than 600 wind turbines spin round and round all year round.
Two rural counties in the Tri-State may them and take technology to new heights. Neighbors might find themselves living next to towers, too.
A wind farm proposed by E.ON Energy could soon sprout from fields in Posey and Gibson counties.
What is it like to live next to windmills 300 feet tall? Drive 200 miles up the road to see. Bruce Buchanan, farmer and Benton Co. Commissioner, says unequivocally, turbines have changed his life.
“It’s a big deal to put a windmill on a property,” Buchanan said. He and his family have 15 towers across 6,000 acres.
Farm developers pay him more than $5,000 per turbine every year, but some of the larger turbines now net land owners upwards of $16,000 apiece.
“It’s making the county a lot of money,” Buchanan added. He said turbines have helped pour $35 million into new asphalt on county roads and chalked up $3 million to local schools.
It’s hard for Paul Jackson, Economic Development Director of Benton Co., to imagine life without these beasts in the backyard.
“Our tax rates would be a lot higher, the school system would be worse off,” said Jackson. “Eventually it gets to the point where you don’t think about it at all. It’s like telephone poles, eventually they just become part of the scenery and you don’t pay much attention to them.”
Since Benton Co. sprouted its first windmill 10 years ago, Jackson says his office hasn’t had a single complaint. But that has not stopped noise outside the county from seeping in.
“A lot of what we hear is, ‘Benton County does this and Benton County does that.’ The reality of it is, if you want to know exactly what’s going on in Benton County, feel free to call us.”
Eyewitness News spent hours in Benton and neighboring Warren Co. to find someone opposed to wind turbines, but everyone we talked to only wants more.
“Some people think it’s bad because of the electrical energy, bad for the birds flying in the air, bad for the farmers, for the land,” said Debbie Weigle, whose son worked on construction of a wind farm. “They could be in my back yard, I wouldn’t care.”
Ed Watkins doesn’t have enough land for a turbine of his own, but believes they help the local economy. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m for ‘em,” he said.
County leaders say turbines have driven the cost of living down dramatically, so the opinions of most neighbors don’t surprise Buchanan or Jackson.
Jackson says more than 11,000 megawatts are generated out of the area, spilling into Illinois and White County next door.
In another nearby county without wind power, Buchanan says he has friends who pay the government $50 per acre.
Buchanan says property taxes in Benton Co. are around $25 per acre, “which is unbelievable, only because of the increased assessed valuation we have.”
In the eyes of county leaders, it is only misinformation grinding turbine development to a halt.
“The worst thing is having other counties come and say, ‘You guys are terrible,’ We’re not. We enjoy them, they’re not that bad,” Jackson said.
Turbines don’t come without consequences. When the sun is just right, it can cause flickering shadows and drive some people crazy. There are reports they cause sleep problems, dizziness, or headaches.
Definitive data on health effects from living near wind farms is hard to come by.
“You can find whatever you’re looking for on the internet,” Jackson added. “If you’re looking for bad things, you’ll find them, if you’re looking for good things you’ll find them.”
Jackson says Benton Co. has some of the most liberal setback requirements anywhere. Towers must be 1,000 feet from a home.
Back in the Tri-State, E.ON Energy wants to build a farm of its own. They are aiming to cover 15,000 acres, which is about 23 square miles.
E.ON’s standards are a little roomier than are found in Benton Co., requiring a minimum of 1,250 feet from homes.
How do turbines work?
Many coal plants are on their last legs and miners are losing jobs. Problems facing communities across the Tri-State are well documented. Some feel like we’re overdue for new, clean energy.
“I don’t care if it’s Evansville or Poseyville or wherever it might be, you need to have some way to reconcile in your mind that we have to have generation of electricity if we’re going to shutter coal plants,” said Buchanan.
Jackson says biggest problem they now face is Benton Co. is about out of real estate for more.
Corn and soybeans have long been the cash crop for Hoosiers. Jackson thinks better understanding can turn wind into our number-one green.
The giants of Benton need no water or sunlight. Only an open mind, and wallet with room to grow.