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Katharine Lau/Medill

Timothy Polz, senior project developer of Midwest Wind Energy, discusses the types of land best suited for a wind farm.

Developing wind farms is a breeze for Midwest Wind Energy

by Katharine Lau
March 05, 2010

Katharine Lau/Medill

Timothy Polz, senior project developer of Midwest Wind Energy, talks about the potential of renewable energy.

Katharine Lau/Medill

Timothy Polz, senior project developer of Midwest Wind Energy, discusses the need for state and federal governments' commitment to renewable energy.

Drive a couple of hours southwest of Chicago, down a two-lane, barely paved county road, through cornfields and cow pastures and into a town called Tiskilwa, Ill. Skyscrapers disappeared miles ago. Follow the bend in the road and look out the passenger-side window.

Strategically placed on the hill, several 400-foot, white wind turbines peek through the hazy, gray fog. Even the snow on the ground seems off-white in comparison. The only sounds come from a train’s faint whistle in the distance and the wind’s soft whirring as each of the turbines’ three blades cut through the air.

It’s a different world from the cars accelerating and braking in front of the office building off Michigan Avenue where Midwest Wind Energy LLC operates.

Formed in 2003 by Stefan Noe and Michael Donahue, MWE brings projects from concept to construction-ready. With nine employees, the company has developed projects in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska and is venturing into the Rocky Mountain and Plains states.

Noe began developing wind energy projects in 2000, forming a company called Illinois Wind Energy LLC which would later become MWE.

MWE does not build or operate the wind turbines. Instead, the company scouts for potential usable farmland and negotiates leases on land with local farmers to plot out the turbines’ locations. It works with the community to educate it about the turbines and secures the necessary permits from local and state governments, specifically the easements for the underground cable that will connect each of the turbines to a central collection system and for the gravel access road necessary to reach the turbines for maintenance purposes.

MWE works with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure the turbines will not pose a danger to air navigation and completes avian assessments to make sure local threatened or endangered species will not be harmed by project development.

Development typically takes about two to four years, and construction takes anywhere from eight to 18 months, depending on the size and scope of the project, according to Timothy Polz, senior project developer of MWE.

The company often works with partners who help finance and eventually construct, own and operate the projects upon completion. Since 2005, MWE has been in an exclusive partnership with Irvine, Calif.-based Edison Mission Energy Inc., an indirect subsidiary of Edison International Inc., and they have worked together on in-operation Elkhorn Ridge Wind Farm in Peoria, Neb., and under-construction Big Sky Project in Ohio, Ill., East Grove, Ill., and May, Ill. In exchange for development funding, Edison has the right to purchase the project before it is offered to others.

Regarding the Tiskilwa venture, Polz said that in 2000 it was the success of MWE’s power-purchase agreement with Chicago-based Exelon Corp.’s Commonwealth Edison Co. that “made the project a reality."

“At that time, no one else was really developing wind in Illinois. There were a few other developers considering developing wind energy in Illinois,” Polz said. “But Illinois Wind Energy was the first to go head-on into developing wind energy in Illinois. At that point, it wasn’t all that clear that wind would work in Illinois.”

That first project by Illinois Wind Energy resulted not only in the wind farm in Tiskilwa, called Crescent Ridge, but also in a partnership between Noe and Donahue, president and executive vice president, respectively, of MWE.

Since then, MWE has developed five projects, totaling approximately 567 megawatts. The company has one project currently under construction and another nine in development. While Crescent Ridge is the smallest project with 33 turbines and a capacity of 54 megawatts, Big Sky will be the largest with 114 turbines and a capacity of 240 megawatts.

A megawatt of wind can provide enough energy for about 300 to 500 average households, according to Polz, but the infrastructure needed to produce wind energy comes with a hefty price tag.

“Some of our larger facilities, some of our 200-megawatt-plus developments, can cost upwards of $3 million to develop, and then we can turn them around and sell those projects for in the range of $60,000 to $100,000 per megawatt,” Polz said. The Big Sky project, for example, is “about a half a billion dollar investment” for MWE’s partner, Edison, according to Polz.

But the projects have not come without challenges. Among those challenges are dispelling misconceptions about the turbines.

Cal Zehr, pastor of Willow Springs Mennonite Church, has lived in Tiskilwa for 18 years. He said that in the beginning some people were so against the wind turbines that they made up issues. Among the concerns he heard were: the wind turbines made a noisy swishy sound, developed stray voltage which would endanger humans and animals, threw ice off the blades, killed migratory birds and created a strobing effect with the sun which would cause health problems.

“We have three wind farms up and running, and they seem to be going along pretty well,” said Dale Anderson, county board chairman of Bureau County. “I think now people are okay with them. There were some objections initially to them.”

Potential changes in property value and the related issue of aesthetics are overwhelmingly the greatest concerns, according to Polz.

“Typically people don’t want to or don’t think they’re going to want to look at wind turbines,” Polz said. “Unfortunately, there’s just no way that we can disguise or hide our 400-foot structures.”

Polz maintains that numerous studies done in the U.S. have shown that the installation of wind turbines has had “no significant impact to property values.”

Since the wind turbines have been in operation, Reverend Zehr has not heard any complaints.

“I think it’s great to have wind turbines up and running on our horizon,” he said. “The wind keeps blowing so they provide clean energy, income for landowners and a broader tax basis for owners.”

Andrea Horst, a clerk at Tiskilwa Library, agrees. She has lived in Tiskilwa for 10 years and said she has “always said that they’re a very good thing.”

She added: “If we had land, we’d have one on our land."

While she acknowledges that the wind turbines are inconvenient for some people--big trucks turning around in driveways and leaving ruts, interruptions with television reception, lights of the central collection systems on all the time--she also sees the benefits.

“I think wind energy is such a positive thing,” Horst said. “I think the number of wind turbines is going to increase and just become part of the landscape, and people will say, remember the time when we didn’t have these? Just like telephone poles.”

Polz appreciated the community’s views: “It’s kind of a symbol of progress and clean energy that there’s a varying range of opinions on people’s views being affected by wind turbines.”

In 2007, Illinois, along with 20 other states, passed a "renewable portfolio" law, requiring electric utilities to obtain 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025, according to the Illinois Wind Energy Association Web site. The first wind farm in Illinois was constructed in 2003, and since then the state has become “home to over 1000 megawatts of wind generation capacity – enough to power 300,000 homes.”

Illinois has the potential for 10,000 megawatts of wind generation capacity, according to the IWEA. MWE hopes to play a considerable role in this development. According to Polz, by 2012 MWE’s goal is “to have developed and have in the ground at least 1000 megawatts.”

Despite the possibility for significant growth, the wind energy industry is not without limitations.

“The one issue that all renewable energy has, whether it’s solar or wind or whatever, is that it’s intermittent, so you have to take the power when it’s generated,” Polz said. “So you have to start from the concept that all renewables are kind of faced with that burden or that issue.”

In that regard, one source of renewable energy does not have an advantage over the other, according to Polz. However, Polz still believes that “wind right now is by far the most economical renewable energy resource out there."

He went on: “I think the future of the industry is bright. There’s a tremendous amount of growth potential, and I think wind power is going to continue to decrease in cost.”

The decrease in cost will come with increased innovation and additional legislation. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 added and amended several energy tax incentives for businesses, utilities, government institutions and consumers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The Recovery Act “repealed the $4,000 limit on the investment tax credit for small wind energy property,” extended the production tax credit to cover wind energy, among other resources, and allowed for an investment tax credit which “allows taxpayers to take a single tax credit against the project’s tax basis equal to 30 percent in its first year.”

Polz said all of these incentives, along with additional federal legislation, “such as a federal renewable energy standard,” are good first steps which will help spur development both in the renewable energy industry and in the overall U.S. economy.

“If the United States shows a long-term commitment to renewable energy, you’re going to see a lot of these manufacturers locate facilities in the States, and you’re going to see a lot of domestic companies spring up or get into renewable energy development,” Polz said. “And I think it really will be a huge benefit for the U.S. economy.”

He believes that the industry has plenty of room to grow, too.

“Currently, renewable energy occupies about or comprises about 2 percent – actually probably less than that – of the overall energy mix in the United States,” Polz said. “And if you look at what some European countries have done and what most experts think is possible for the United States is that they believe that renewable energy – so wind, solar and any of the other technologies – can occupy upwards of 20 to 25 percent of our energy mix.”

Polz and MWE believe they can be a substantial piece of that puzzle.