Engineer: Nix the wind project

Tipton County Indiana (east of Kokomo, IN).

(The following was originally published in The Rochester Sentinel of Rochester, IN on Friday, November 10, 2017.)

My name is Ryan Mulligan. I graduated from Rochester High School in 2002. From there, I went to Purdue University and graduated in 2006 with a degree in Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering.

The School of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at Purdue is universally recognized as one of the top in the country. The school proudly boasts of 15 astronauts amongst its alumni.

Admittedly, I am not one of the fifteen. But after Purdue, I moved to Utah and worked for three years as an engineer in the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster program until two concurrent things happened: 1) my wife and I had the desire to move back home to Indiana and live amongst family, and 2) President Obama decided the United States’ participation in manned space flight was no longer worth the taxpayers’ money. I left the disappearing manned space flight industry voluntarily, but many of my friends and coworkers had no choice.

My wife and I, and our two young daughters, currently live in southern Fulton County. We peacefully live on 25 acres in a small house, near friends, with beautiful sunrises and sunsets.

I’m providing a little background to demonstrate that my opinions on engineering projects are backed with education, and that I have been personally affected by the fickleness of the federal government. And the federal government is the only entity that is holding wind farm projects, like the one proposed in Fulton County, together.

Sustainability is a noble goal. The realization that our planet’s resources are generally finite, and the desire to live within those limits, is wise. But sustainability has two facets: 1) environmental sustainability and 2) financial sustainability, the second of which often gets overlooked.

Wind farms are not financially sustainable. The only reason that the wind energy industry exists is because of the lucrative federal government subsidy called the Production Tax Credit (PTC). The PTC takes our tax money and funnels it to wind farm companies so they can compete in the energy market. Without our tax dollars, wind farms are not financially viable.

The reason wind farms cannot compete on the energy market is due to unalterable physics: when the windmill blades aren’t spinning, no electricity is being made.

Wind is simply not reliable.

Electricity needs are the greatest when it’s hot and still, exactly when wind farms are not producing. Wind farms will never compete with a power plant that utilizes a consistent source of energy.

They will only exist while they are being supported by the federal government.

So what happens when the PTC subsidy goes away (like government support for the Space Shuttle went away)? Fortunately, we’ve recently seen an example of it. At the end of 2012, the subsidy expired. During that time, wind farm construction ground to a halt. Once the PTC subsidy was renewed by Congress in 2013, wind farm construction began again. This is a clear indication that wind farming companies have no desire or ability to farm wind if they are not propped up by the federal government.

So where do we stand today? In the Fiscal Year 2016, the PTC was extended for five years. On their website, the American Wind Energy Association states clearly that the extension of the PTC is vital to the industry, allowing growth and construction to continue. They are not shy about their need for our tax dollars.

Here’s why the proposers of the wind farm are in a rush: the extension of the PTC included a phase-down plan which drops the subsidy by 20% each year. If a project is started in 2017, a wind energy company will receive 80% of the original subsidy. However, if construction begins in 2018, the subsidy drops to 60%.

And so on. Here’s yet another important fact: the PTC subsidy is only paid out during the first ten years of a wind farm’s life.

That means that the wind farm being proposed in Fulton County is only guaranteed to be financially viable for its first ten years of operation.

Beyond that, it will take an act of Congress to keep it operating competitively with other sources of energy. That’s hardly comforting for a project that has a 25-30 year life span.

Fortunately, we’ve been offered a glimpse into our near future. A former Tipton County commissioner, Jane Harper, went out of her way to offer her advice in the November 3rd, 2017 edition of the Rochester Sentinel. Jane was responsible for helping approve the Wildcat I Wind Farm in Tipton County. She now regrets it, and reached out to Fulton County because she wishes someone had reached out to her. She said Tipton County’s setbacks (the distance a windmill must be from a home or property line) were not effective enough, resulting in noise and shadow flicker in neighboring homes.

Shadow flicker occurs when a windmill’s blades create a spinning shadow on a home.

Jane offered passionate, yet reasonable, advice to our community. After being offered a glimpse into our future, the disappointing response from our commissioners was mostly of dismissal.

Jane’s efforts should be thanked and her concerns should be thoroughly explored.

That being said, we should be thankful our commissioners have not rubber-stamped this project. Without their diligence, construction could already be underway before the public realized what was happening.

One valuable piece of advice Jane offered was that windmill setbacks should be established from property lines rather than residences. The Director of the Fulton County Planning Commission, Casi Cowles, admitted she was confused by Jane’s assertion.

While contemplating a proposed 1/2 mile setback from property lines, she stated, “If 1,500 feet isn’t good enough, why is adding 1,140 feet any better?” Here are two real-life reasons the setbacks should be established at 1/2 mile from property lines: 1) My property is 25 acres.

My 112 year-old farmhouse is on the far eastern edge of the property. If the approved setback ends up being 1,500 feet from a residential structure, windmills can be built right on my western property line. With the windmills in place, I could no longer build on the western half of my property, even if I want to replace my old farmhouse. In effect, the western half of my property would be owned by the windmills. I don’t know how anyone could argue that this isn’t a violation of property rights.

2) Shadow flicker from windmills is real. Go ahead and YouTube it; you’ll get queasy just watching the videos. Today, windmills placed at a 1,500-foot setback would cause approximately five hours of shadow flicker in a residence. It gets worse as the days shorten. I can prove it, but my wife convinced me to remove geometry and sun altitude information from this letter. With a 1/2 mile setback, the chance of shadow flicker in a victim’s home decreases significantly.

So we have a proposal in front of us that appears like an opportunity to some.

Something bigger than us has turned its eye toward our county’s larger landholders and said: “I am here for you. I can provide money to you and the county and it’s all in the name of sustainable energy!

All we need is your signature!”

It’s natural to think: “We should be thankful this large thing has turned its attention to us! This appears to be an opportunity! If we turn it down, we might be missing out on something! This project could bring money to the county! Landowners should be able to do what they want because wind energy is the future!”

In reality, we’re dealing with an entity in a shaky business who peddles promises in return for taxpayer dollars. In the best case scenario, we will be forced to live amongst these spinning skyscrapers for the next three decades, all while a few landowners benefit and the rest of us suffer (knowing full well our taxpayer dollars are the only reason the monstrosities exist). In the worst case scenario, wind energy falls out of favor of the federal government and nobody is left to operate, service, or decommission our dilapidated rural skyscrapers.

Our three commissioners, Bryan Lewis, Rick Ranstead, and Steve Metzger, will be deciding our future from here.

Their decisions will affect the county for the next 30+ years.

Let’s consider the decision that Bryan, Rick, and Steve are facing. They are weighing whether or not the promises outweigh the costs for Fulton County. The promises are in the future and are in the form of promised money and promised community support and promised infrastructure. And the promisers of these promises live or die by the acts of Congress. But Fulton County’s costs are real and right now.

This project will deface Fulton County, destroying its horizons, upstaging its beautiful reddish-purple sunrises and sunsets with spinning blades and blinking red lights. The county will be tattooed with windmills that will be the size of 60+ story skyscrapers. For visual reference, any one of the proposed windmills would be the second tallest building in downtown Indianapolis.

Our neighbors to the north, Marshall County, already decided they don’t want their residents to be forced to live amongst a wind farm. We should do the same.

But, if our commissioners decide to allow this government boondoggle that causes large landowner’s neighbors to become choice less victims, let’s at least protect the victims by enforcing a 1/2 mile setback from property lines. If the wind farm can’t make that work, fine. They can build one in Utah. I’ve lived there, and it’s not hard to get 1/2 mile from anything.

Thank you, Ryan Mulligan

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