EARL PARK -- In the middle of nowhere on U.S. 41, Stan's Tap pops out of the middle of cornfields. It's the only thing around, besides corn and soybeans. Bryan Berry walks inside and a couple of local men call him by name.
Berry tells them he'll be back later and heads out in his white pickup. As he pulls out of the parking lot, over the top of the corn-covered ridge across County Road 500 West, a huge blade suddenly appears in the sky. It soon becomes clear the blade and two others are attached to a turbine. A big one, 260 feet high.
Berry, whose family has farmed in Benton and Tippecanoe counties since the late 1800s, heads down the road, rounds a corner to a dusty gravel road to a whole bunch of turbines and pulls up to one in particular.
It's his, or at least the land it sits on is. The huge blades whoosh by silently. The only sound the turbine ever makes is a short, barely audible whine when the blades change direction with the wind.
For more than a year now, Barry and 64 other landowners have reaped a harvest of a different sort, leasing their land to the Orion Energy Group for the Benton County Wind Farm.
As Berry puts it, "It's not a get-rich-quick kind of thing. "I'm guaranteed $5,000 a year whether it runs or not." Berry also collects a portion of the profits from the electricity the turbine generates.
Last year Orion cut him two checks totaling $6,900.
"It can be the difference between no vacation and a really nice one," he said. Some have more towers and make more money.
The county stands to benefit even more than individual landowners, however.
"We used to be the poorest county in the state, being agricultural," said Berry, who became a county commissioner a year ago. Now, through a tax abatement agreement with Orion, the county will get $11,000 per year per turbine beginning in 2018.
"There are 495 turbines now," Berry said. "When all is said and done there will be 1,120."
Ka-ching. That's $12,320,000 per year.
Proposal in Lake County
Berry is one of a growing group of lucky landowners in the state who have found a financial windfall in leasing property to wind power companies who pay big money to locate wind turbines on choice parcels of real estate.
In Lake County, an hour north of Fowler in Benton County, sit 23,000 acres whose 55 owners stand to cash in on the same type of deal Berry and others have, if the winds in Eagle Creek Township blow just right.
Aussie-based global wind energy development company Windlab has identified the area north of the Kankakee River and just west of the Porter County line as prime wind-generating property.
Windlab hopes to put between 125 and 198 wind turbines there, creating a $2 billion, 295-megawatt Eagle Creek Wind Farm.
"Wind energy is the hottest market in the world right now," Windlab's Midwest leasing specialist Rodney Flora told landowners at an informational meeting last week. "It's growing by leaps and bounds."
Favorable wind data collected by Windlab over the past seven months has more than doubled the original footprint of the potential wind farm since Windlab first met with property owners in March.
The proposed site stretches from a mile north of the Kankakee River northward to U.S. 231 and 153rd Street, just east of Stony Run County Park. It is bounded on the east by the Lake/Porter county line and on the west by the Eagle Creek/Cedar Creek county line.
Wind data collection
Windlab recently received permission from the Lake County Board of Zoning Appeals to erect a meteorological tower north of Indiana 2 near Clay Street. The Lake County Plan Commission is expected to issue the permit within days, according to Lake County Planning Director Ned Kovachevich. Flora said Windlab will seek permission to erect several more test towers, which will collect wind data over a period of about three years to verify if the site is viable as a source of wind power.
Before that can happen, however, the company needs a consensus of property owners willing to allow the turbines on their property. The Eagle Creek group formed a committee last week to study the proposal, and Windlab has encouraged landowners to consult with their attorneys, offering to reimburse them for their legal fees.
Dan Blaney is a Morocco lawyer who formed the Indiana Wind Energy Legal Team to assist property owners and local government when the Benton County wind farms were being proposed.
"The United States is at least five to 10 years behind the rest of the world in wind power," Blaney said, noting that tax abatement, drainage, right of way, wind rights and soil compaction are all issues that need to be addressed.
"The cranes (used to erect and maintain the turbines) are so big they crush the soil," said Blaney, who served as Newton County attorney when the Newton County Landfill was being proposed.
The Lake County site differs from the Benton County wind farms in that I-65 and Indiana 2 are industrial in nature, Blaney said.
"There is nothing like that in Benton and Newton counties," he said. And Lake County, even the rural Eagle Creek area, is much more highly populated than Benton County and even Newton County where a wind farm has also been proposed.
"Benton County has 9,000 people and Newton County has 14,000," Blaney said. Lake County, by contrast, has a population of around 495,000. In terms of energy production, 60 1.5-megawatt turbines could supply 240 houses and 60 2.2-megawatt turbines could supply 400.
Benton County has 518 commercial wind turbines. Lake County, so far, has none.
Lake County doesn't yet have a commercial wind ordinance. The Lake County Council on Tuesday will vote on a proposed ordinance Kovachevich wrote for residential wind turbines because of recent requests.
"As it is now, we would have to grant 55 separate special exceptions for the wind farm if they came to us," he said. "We would have to amend our ordinance to accommodate it."
R. Jack Steele, who serves as a consultant on Blaney's legal team, as well as Benton County surveyor, helped write Benton County's wind ordinance in 2004. "We've tweaked it a lot of times since then," Steele said.
"I assist with local farmers to make sure they get a fair deal," Steele said. "The average person doesn't know anything about it. You have to take into consideration tile breakage from the weight of the heavy equipment compacting the soil, the position of access roads.
Giant windmills, giant cranes
Asked if the turbines have created any problems since the Benton County Wind Farm, run by Orion Energy Group went in in 2004, Steele responded, "It depends on how you look at it. There are things you don't foresee."
Some issues have been nonreplacement of trees that Orion removed from property and 40 turbine blades that the company had to replace because of faulty construction. Maintenance and repair can cause problems in a farmer's field, Steele said.
A crane used to repair or replace turbine parts weighs 986,000 pounds and runs on two tracks, each 4.5 feet wide. A moving crane will compact the soil from 10 to 18 inches. Most drain tiles are 2 feet below the surface and can break within two years, so contracts should reflect language to protect farmers, Steele said.
"We're not against the wind people but we want the best provisions for the farmer and the landowner," Steele said.
One consideration Steele said Lake County should make is the weight of the equipment on roads during construction of a wind farm. In Benton County, which is mostly rural, parts and equipment have been moved mostly through fields.
"I wouldn't want to put one in Lake County," Steele said. "The equipment will pulverize the roads. It takes seven semis to move one crane."
That's what happened in Benton County, Berry said. "Even the school buses couldn't get through. You had to have four-wheel drive." But Orion paid to fix the roads, Berry said.
It's in the landowners' court
Flora said Windlab is reluctant to speak about its plans because the industry is so new that competition from other companies is growing.
David Courtney, Windlab's senior manager for projects development in the Midwest, told Lake County landowners no plans have been brought before the county yet because the project can't get off the ground until landowners say they want it.
"This is driven by landowners," he said at last week's informational meeting.
The Benton County Wind farm signed up 65 of the 69 landowners who were approached
"I don't know anybody who leases their land for turbines that doesn't like them," Blaney said. "Wind is not going to solve all the energy problems in North America, but it helps alleviate them, and it certainly helps the agricultural community. In Texas it saved some ranches when some people got behind in their payments.
"In the long-run maybe it can help preserve the family farm."