EMERALD — In the center of Marvin Voeltz’s farmyard stands an old, rundown windmill.
Used decades ago by Voeltz’s grandparents for pumping water, the windmill reminds Voeltz of the role wind once played — and can still play — in powering farms and homes.
“Right there is proof they used wind,” he said. “What’s wrong with using wind now to produce electricity?”
Voeltz, a dairy farmer near Emerald, is one of more than a dozen landowners who have signed on to host one or more wind turbines for the Highland Wind Farm proposed by Emerging Energies of Wisconsin.
The $250 million proposed wind farm for the Town of Forest in St. Croix County is nearing reality, despite attempts by opponents to block it.
The project would generate 102.5 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 30,000 homes — from 41 almost 500-foot-tall turbines. Power would be sold to Xcel Energy via a proposed electric substation in the nearby Town of Cylon.
Some three years after it was first proposed, emotions still run strong on both sides of the project: While supporters tout the economic benefits, opponents argue that the turbines could harm human health and lower property values in this heavily-populated area.
Highland Wind Farm spokesman Jay Mundinger calls it an opportunity to generate more “green” energy, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars in land-use payments for landowners and communities.
The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin will hear public comments on the project Thursday, Oct. 11, at the Forest Town Hall. A hearing also was held Oct. 9 in Madison.
If the wind farm gets the final OK, two turbines will be erected in the coming months on property owned by Voeltz, who milks 44 cows and owns 260 acres.
He said he’ll be paid several thousands of dollars per turbine each year for leasing land to EEW, which would own the turbines and maintain them.
Voeltz, 63, said he views the turbines as a sound investment in his family farm, any future generation that might farm there and in his retirement.
He said he would still be able to farm around the turbines, which take up about 50 feet in diameter, and be allowed to use the turbine-access driveways that would be installed on his land.
“For what we’re getting compensated, we’re not losing that much land,” he said.
Voeltz said he and his wife, Denise, signed on to the project almost as soon as it was made available to them a few years back.
“We did a lot of thinking before we signed it,” he said. “We didn’t want to sign something that somebody was going to come in and put up, then never see them again.”
Voeltz said EEW has had good communications, and nobody really had a negative attitude toward the wind farm then; a lot of people likely figured it was never going to happen, he said.
He said he personally hasn’t gotten any backlash from wind-farm opponents worried about potential noise or adverse health effects caused by turbines.
“I don’t tell people what they should build in their yard or what they should do with their own property,” he said.
The turbines must sit at least 1,200 feet from homes. Voeltz said the ones he saw near Green Bay were relatively quiet — all he could hear was a soft hum.
“We never heard the swish of the blades. I was really impressed,” he said, adding that there are enough trees and other neighborhood sounds to muffle any sound his turbines might produce.
“If somebody drives by on the road, that will make more noise than the turbine,” he said.
As for any detrimental effects on health, Voeltz said microwave ovens and cellphones probably cause more harm.
He said this project would not only benefit his family but the entire community as the township and county also would receive payments.
Wind power also brings long-term economic and environmental benefits nationwide, he said.
“It’s time that we have to start doing something to help ourselves and not depend on other countries for gas and coal,” he said. “I don’t foresee that the wind is ever going to quit blowing.”
Wind is one of the cleanest and safest options available for lessening dependence on foreign energy, Voeltz said.
“I think once it gets set up, it should be the cheapest way to go and I would say the healthiest because we’re not burning coal,” he said.
Some still on the fence
While Voeltz’s neighbor, Roy Evans, supports homegrown energy such as wind, he admits he’s still on the fence about the Highland Wind Farm.
“We might find out years from now a decision was made in error,” he said.
Evans wants to see more concrete data from those with more experience about turbines’ effects.
“Emotionally, I’m for it,” said Evans, a retired prison psychologist. “I think wind power is here to stay.”
Whether the Highland Wind Farm is built or not, wind power use will continue to grow internationally, he said.
But he’d like to see studies from other countries, such as Europe, that have harnessed the wind longer than the U.S. He’s also suspicious of the motives of those who will profit off this wind farm.
“I know that people want to move quickly on this,” Evans said, “and the people … who are really pushing this are the people who would make a profit off it. But maybe we need more data.”
Voeltz’s turbines will tower about a half-mile away from the small acreage where Evans has resided more than 30 years.
Evans, who has looked into the feasibility of getting a small turbine so he can go off-grid, said the advantages of this wind farm must be maximized and the disadvantages minimized.
He wants more oversight and for developers to build into the process an ability to rectify any issues that might crop up later.
“If pressed for a decision, I would say let’s go ahead because we do need it. We need it as a nation,” Evans aid. “We need to continue to explore and implement all options for decreasing our reliance on (foreign) oil.
“If this were an emergency situation, these possible negative effects might not matter at all,” he said.
Lawsuit called ‘frivolous’
The Highland Wind Farm edged closer to reality Sept. 30 when a federal judge ruled that claims against EEW by members of The Forest Voice — an opponent group — and their attorneys were “frivolous.”
The Forest Voice was formed after the project got initial approval from the Forest town board in 2010.
“We have been completely transparent through this entire process as we’ve tried to bring clean, renewable energy to St. Croix County,” Mundinger said. “Some very responsible town officials lost their jobs after initially approving our Highland Wind Farm two years ago, and we’ve been fighting ever since. We feel a level of vindication here.”
The opponents’ attorneys were ordered to pay a total of $1,500 to EEW.