This story has been updated.
As the push to avoid the worst impacts of climate change heats up, some rural communities find themselves on the front lines of clean energy developments. There have been bitter fights in Ohio over industrial wind farm proposals in recent years.
Just ask retired school teacher Anne Fry. She lives in rural north-central Ohio and never expected to get much online attention. “I was kind of flattered because not everybody gets to be a meme,” she said with a grin.
Still, it was a personal attack, and it was in response to her support for wind energy. Fry’s family bought 300 acres in Seneca County, some of which had already been leased to a wind developer for a turbine project. “We were excited for green energy,” she said.
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Then in early 2021, Fry attended a hearing of the Ohio Power Siting Board, which needed to approve the project.
As Fry gave her testimony, explaining her support of wind energy, and that she barely noticed turbines in other communities, she says people who were against the project were shouting and laughing at her. “I just said that the wind turbines gracefully blend in with the landscape,” she remembered. “The room erupted. It was kind of like a Jerry Springer show.”
After that, Fry became a target of local anti-wind groups, which were growing in northern Ohio.
SB 52 gives local governments new powers to ban renewable projects
In June of 2021, the state legislature gave locals new power when passed Senate Bill 52, which allows counties to block the development of large-scale solar and wind projects. Last November, the Seneca County commissioners used that law to ban renewable energy projects in unincorporated parts of the county.
“So the commissioners in Seneca County eliminated a possibility of me earning other income off of my land,” she explained. “I am supportive of solar and wind energy, but I’m also adamant about being able to use my farm ground as I want to use it.”
Concerns about wind in Crawford County
Mick McCarthy agrees that industrial wind projects are about property rights, but he sees it differently. He is part of Crawford Anti-Wind, whose website says it’s paid for by the Crawford Neighbors United PAC.
McCarthy lives just south of Seneca County, in Crawford County, Ohio, and he’s been campaigning to stop a wind farm proposed by Apex Clean Energy – a 60-turbine, 300-megawatt project. According to the Crawford County Recorder’s website, Apex signed about 300 leases with landowners.
McCarthy’s neighbor has signed with Apex, he said, but he hasn’t. “Conservatively, within 1,600 feet of my house, they will be able to construct one of these 650-foot industrial wind turbines,” he said. “We don’t have full rights. We can’t enjoy our property. We can’t expect to be healthy on our property.”
He and others who oppose the project fear negative health effects. McCarthy talks about a paper on infrasound, which is barely audible sound that can come from turbines. “In some cases, people were experiencing these feelings of nausea, pressure, [and] anxiety,” he said.
But the Ohio Department of Health published an assessment of the scientific literature about health and wind farms earlier this year. It found that a wind turbine that is 1,000 feet away, which is closer than Ohio’s law allows, typically generates the same intensity of sound as light traffic that’s 100 feet away. State health officials said that’s too quiet to cause negative health outcomes.
“There is no significant body of peer-reviewed, scientific evidence that clearly demonstrates a direct link between adverse physical health effects and exposures to noise (audible, [low-frequency noise], or infrasound), visual phenomena (shadow flicker), or [electromagnetic fields] associated with wind turbine projects,” the report found.
“There’s not a direct causation link yet that they can find statistically to headaches or some of these other health side effects,” said Chris Nye. “Not saying that they won’t eventually and we’re not willing to be that experiment.”
Nye lives in Cincinnati but grew up in Crawford County, and his parents still live there. He first heard about the wind project when they told him Apex was pushing them into a lease agreement, even though he said they weren’t ready to sign it.
“And I realized my community was being taken advantage of by a beast that was probably more clever at doing this than they had ever encountered, and so that was very concerning to me,” he said.
Nye, who was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that read “Stop Wind Farms,” is also concerned about unfair lease agreements, and about turbines catching fire.
“You go on Google and just type in wind turbine fails, and you’ll see nonstop videos of wind turbines catching fire,” Nye said. “We just don’t want to live next to that.”
Dahvi Wilson, vice president of public affairs for Apex Clean Energy, refutes such claims.
“We would argue that many of the things that people are scared of are not real and are not going to happen,” she said. “We are not aware of any injuries to members of the public that have ever been caused by wind turbines.”
There are more than 72,300 wind turbines across the United States, according to the American Clean Power Association. “Fires at wind turbines are exceedingly rare occurrences, and claims that there have been many fires involving wind turbines are not accurate,” said ACPA spokesperson Jason Ryan in an email to The Allegheny Front.
Benefits for the community, and for Apex
Wilson points out that Crawford County has a lot to gain from the wind farm. Apex has estimated it will pay $81 million to the county over the 30 years of the project and about $45 million in landowner lease payments. The company also claims the project will create up to 100 construction jobs.
Ohio laws have been unfriendly toward renewables over the past decade. Ohio has what’s considered to be strict setback laws for wind turbines. House Bill 6, which was mired in scandal, ended renewable energy mandates and bolstered coal and nuclear plants. And now, Senate Bill 52 has empowered county governments to ban renewable developments outright.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce has written in support of renewable energy, in a case currently before the Ohio Supreme Court about another wind development, arguing in part that Ohio risks falling behind in the race against other states to build solar and wind capacity, just as many industries are clamoring for clean energy.
“And so several businesses have left,” Wilson said, referring to other wind developers. “But we [Apex] have stayed in Ohio because we believe it’s a fantastic resource.”
Northern Ohio is in a unique location, garnering wind from Lake Erie, she explained. It is also attached to the PJM regional grid, which includes more than a dozen states, including energy markets in Pennsylvania and the East Coast.
Retired farmer David Crum said he signed a lease with Apex. “We’re big backers of it because we think that it’s a good thing for our community, and it’s a good thing for the people in the community,” he said, sitting on his back deck overlooking the field where a turbine could be built.
Crawford County bans wind
Despite this, the Crawford County commissioners used the new state law to ban wind energy projects in unincorporated areas of the county in May 2022.
But this time, Apex didn’t back down. Instead, it organized a collection of signatures for a ballot initiative. Now local voters will decide whether to keep the ban by voting “yes,” or to overturn it by voting “no.”
Many yards around the county are adorned with bright yellow signs imploring people to stop wind farms. Crum’s yard is one of only a few around with campaign signs against the ban.
Wilson isn’t surprised more people aren’t publicizing their opposition to the ban. “I think many of them are afraid that they’re going to be accused of acting purely in self-interest, in selling out their community. So they get nervous about standing up,” she said.
She understands that communities often have health and safety concerns. “We keep hoping that the more projects that get built, the more obvious it will be that there’s just not very much to be afraid of with these things,” said Wilson. “But unfortunately, we see the opposite.”
Research finds an online misinformation network to thwart wind
Joshua Fergen, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, has seen that too. He has studied online anti-wind campaigns in rural communities in South Dakota and Ohio.
Fergen points to Facebook community pages for the rising anti-wind sentiment. In his research, he has seen what he considers legitimate reasons to be against industrial wind developments. For example, turbines can be seen as eyesores on rural landscapes, and lease payments can give large farms an advantage over small family farms.
“I don’t want to belittle or diminish those claims,” Fergen said. “But for whatever reason, I don’t see those logical arguments in the Facebook community pages.”
Instead, he found that Facebook anti-wind groups often focus on extreme, unsubstantiated risks, like linking wind farms with cancer, dangerous infrasound, and exploding turbines.
“They have different ways of focusing on these most extreme examples to try to make them feel real at that local community,” he said.
Fergen’s study finds that there is a coordinated network of anti-wind energy activism on Facebook, where non-local actors participate in local issues.
Once an anti-wind Facebook community group is formed, Fergen found that these outside interests start posting their messages. It can look like it’s coming from within the local community, but Fergen says it’s not.
“What was more alarming was I saw the same people on these Facebook groups all over the United States. The same people that were in Ohio spreading posts were the same people in Pennsylvania spreading posts, same people in New York spreading posts,” he said.
Fergen doesn’t know who is funding this effort, as that information has been difficult to track. But the purpose seems to be to create fear, confusion, and disruption around wind energy, he said.
Fergen calls the Seneca County renewables ban the “baby child” of the anti-wind movement.
“If it works to a little degree, this low-effort kind of campaign to halt renewable energy development in the farmlands is effective. It can work,” he said.
On November 8, when Crawford County votes on the ban, it will be part of deciding whether wind energy can get the support it needs in rural communities to be a viable climate solution.