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Wind farms stir up worry

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Lanny Baer and his family moved to a nice quiet acreage in Spring Prairie Township a few miles north of here.

The idea 19 years ago was to escape the hubbub of Fargo-Moorhead, yet be close enough to the amenities and opportunities of the metro area.

Now the Baers could find themselves with new neighbors - the sprawling Noble Flat Hill Windpark, which would plant 134 wind towers capable of generating 201 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 50,000 homes.

Baer, a contractor, is worried about the noise the turbines will generate, and wonders if wind patterns in the area will be disrupted, as well as about the effects from transmission lines that would pass near his home.

"Am I going to have to listen to a refrigerator running all day long?" he asked at a public meeting about the project, referring to decibel levels from the turbines that compare to the hum of a refrigerator.

The Flat Hill project is one of several proposed wind farms that could, if built, transform the landscape of eastern Clay County and neighboring Becker and Otter Tail counties.

One proposed complex, Lakeswind Power Plant, would place 40 towers that would generate 60 megawatts of electricity in an area about five miles northeast of Barnesville, Minn.

Yet another possible project, in the Rollag hills area and beyond, contemplates 200 towers that would generate 600 megawatts, according to landowners who have been approached by a wind developer seeking leases.

Combined, the trio of projects could mean almost 375 towers dotting a landscape that contains important wildlife habitat areas - and altered views for the homes that increasingly are being built in the gateway to Minnesota lakes country.

"If what's proposed in Clay County actually occurs, it's going to dramatically change this county," said Tim Magnusson, the county's planning director.

The county has no regulatory authority for wind farms larger than 5 megawatts, which must obtain permits from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and sometimes require environmental impact studies.

Southeast Clay County, including Tansem and Parke townships, is prized for its rolling landscape - attractive both to homeowners and wind developers.

"It's the most aesthetically pleasing area of Clay County," Magnusson said.

Per Anderson, a Moorhead college professor who owns 40 acres in Tansem Township where he and his wife had planned to build a new home, agrees.

"It's absolutely beautiful," he said, noting he had 12 prairie chickens on his land, and plans to plant 500 trees and shrubs. "It's a habitat-rich area."

But the Andersons' plans to build a home are on hold. Concerned about potential adverse health effects, the couple are waiting to learn whether Lakeswind will be built.

Anderson appeared at a recent public meeting regarding the Flat Hill project near Glyndon - the first of the area wind farms in the regulatory pipeline - to urge Minnesota officials to explore the possible health effects some people experience from chronic exposure to low-frequency sound energy.

"I know this is a very, very contested thing," Anderson said, adding he has seen research from a medical doctor in upstate New York who is working on a study that she will offer for peer review.

David Birkholz, representing the Minnesota Office of Energy at the Clay County meeting, said there would be a thorough review of Flat Hill as part of the environmental impact statement, a draft of which is expected around June.

"I entirely agree that it's a study worthy of investigation," he said of possible health effects.

Scot Stradley, who owns a home in a subdivision near Glyndon, is concerned that the turbines and transmission lines will be a blight on the landscape that could decrease property values.

"People do get upset when their views get blocked and views do have market value," said Stradley, an economics professor.

He urged state officials and Noble Environmental Power to use existing power corridors, and wondered whether local users would benefit from electricity generated from the Flat Hill project.

Mike Beckner, Noble's director of development, said the project will undergo thorough scrutiny, and property owners' rights will be safeguarded by the regulatory review process now under way.

He doubts, however, that all the projects will come to fruition because the electrical transmission system is not equipped to handle them all. In fact, the Flat Hill proposal might well have been bigger if the grid could handle more than 201 megawatts, he said.

"Currently the capacity doesn't exist for that many turbines," he said of estimates of 350 to 375 towers among several projects. "There just isn't capacity for all these projects now."