The wind turbines on his Colorado farm are 20 years old. Who’s going to take them down?

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PEETZ — It was the spring of 2000 when two wind company representatives came to Tom Fehringer’s farm near the Nebraska border. 

They told him about a coming wind project and pressed him to sign a contract on the spot to lease his land for turbines. Fehringer consulted an attorney in Sterling who said the contract was vague but fairly similar to what an oil and gas company might present. The agreement was signed within a few weeks. Fehringer soon had nine of the Peetz Table wind project’s 33 turbines turning on his Logan County land.

Fehringer, 71, had long been intrigued by renewable energy. He’d considered erecting a wind turbine for his own use and has solar panels outside his house. He calls himself a “firm believer in science” and global warming.

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The wind towers were attractive for another reason: enXco, the developer of the project, was offering landowners $1,000 per tower, per year.

“You come out here dangling $1,000 and that’s big,” Fehringer said. “Nobody’s getting millions, but what it’s done to the property tax base, it’s been huge.” 

But by 2001, the year the project became operational, Fehringer wanted to renegotiate. 

Over the years, Tom Fehringer has wanted to renegotiate his original contract, but the original project was sold and he can’t get an answer as to which company owns the turbines. He keeps a pile of papers and letters in a drawer in his home that he has consistently sent to company officials, but he still has no clear answers. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

He’d learned his contract paid far less than the industry standard and didn’t adjust for inflation. As years went by, blinking lights atop each tower — meant to warn airplanes — went haywire and resembled a “psychedelic light show” at night. One turbine clinked and clanked for months before its nose fell off, sending fiberglass chunks plummeting into Fehringer’s field below, he said. 

Fehringer is no longer sure what company owns the turbines. Payments have kept coming from enXco, renamed EDF Renewables in 2012, which was contracted to provide operations and maintenance support for the project through the end of 2020. But Cinergy Global Power was involved at one point, the landowners’ agreements may have been moved to another LLC affiliated with EDF, and the Peetz project is now owned by an affiliate of Terra-Gen power, according to business records and messages Fehringer has received from the companies.

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He riffled through a wooden chest of drawers one summer afternoon, sifting through letter after letter he’d sent asking about his contract. Company representatives often pointed the finger at each in their responses.  

“Talk about a runaround,” he said, smoothing a hand over his denim shirt. 

Fehringer was among the first landowners to sign a wind company contract in Logan County, now at the center of a renewable energy push that has changed the horizon in northeast Colorado. 

With wind companies eager to cash in on lucrative tax credits and green energy goals embraced by state and federal leaders, the Eastern Plains that border Kansas, Wyoming and Nebraska have become home to more turbines than any other part of the state. 

The growth of renewable energy is expected to increase as Xcel Energy builds a $1.7 billion transmission project connecting solar and wind energy generated in rural Colorado to the more populous Front Range. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act pumped $369 billion into energy and climate change initiatives, an investment expected to further boost the industry. 

But the renewable energy push brings with it concerns that dogged fossil fuels, including a fear that turbines will be abandoned on landowners’ properties.

More than 100 years of state statute and case law governs oil and gas development in Colorado, but only a “patchwork” of local regulations guide utility-scale wind and solar projects, said Kent Holsinger, a lawyer whose firm focuses on natural resources.

“There is a huge difference,” he said. 

In the absence of state regulations, some counties are drafting their own rules regulating the appearance, placement and noise levels of turbines and how they might be decommissioned. 

The trend is playing out across the country. The number of ordinances regulating some aspects of wind development has increased nationwide, a proliferation that could limit the land available for wind development and slow the Biden Administration’s efforts to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found about 300 such ordinances in 2018 and 1,800 this year, a roughly 500% increase

Without clearly defined restrictions, more pressure falls on residents to negotiate their own terms with wind companies. Neighbors who don’t lease their land to developers can have no say in what happens on nearby properties.

Wind turbines.
Wind turbines loom large over property and farmland driving north on CO-61 from Otis toward Sterling. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“You could almost hear a pin drop”

Carol and Jon Schweiger saw signs that a wind project was coming just months after they bought a home in Logan County in 2008. Today, earplugs, a fan in the bedroom and a tinkling water fountain outside obscure the whooshing noise of rotating blades. Blackout curtains hide the picturesque view and block the flashes of shadow and light early in the morning, when turbine blades pass the sun. Even with the curtains closed, the pulses of light leak through.

Video taken by Carol and Jon Schweiger inside their Logan County home.

On still days, the turbines whine as they search for wind, Jon Schweiger said.

Carol Schweiger, who worked at the Sterling Police Department and Logan County Sheriff’s Office before retiring, has planted trees to block the view of the 22 turbines visible from their backyard. The closest are a half-mile from their house. 

“You could almost hear a pin drop,” Jon Schweiger said of their property before the turbines went up. “We enjoyed it because it was just so quiet. You know, no noise whatsoever.”

The renewable energy projects can split communities, pitting neighbors against neighbors, as they grapple with the question of whose property rights prevail when one person wants to lease their land, and another wants an unobstructed skyline and quiet. 

The turbines can also expose deeper disagreements about the future of agricultural communities. Some neighbors believe they are anathema to farming and rural life, while others see them as a cash crop that can keep family farms afloat as they face ever slimmer profit margins. 

“Just because you live out there doesn’t mean you should have a say over how I use my property,” said Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator who works with Xcel’s community relations team on its massive transmission project. He also lobbies for Onward Energy, a power company that has wind, solar and natural gas projects in 16 states.

Brophy likened the opposition to resistance to a hog farm. His family feels the same about both.

“We don’t really want either on our place, but if our neighbors are going to develop either, well,” he said, “we might as well seek the positive” benefits. 

Opposition to the turbines often centers on their appearance, and how their presence can change the visual landscape. Some residents believe the wind towers lower property values and that the shift to renewable energy is happening too quickly.

“They’re not carbon free,” said Sally Strand, who has farmed with her husband, a third-generation farmer, in Otis since the 1980s. “They put them on a train or trucks with all these assisting vehicles.” Some materials for the turbines are imported from other countries, she said.

Tom Fehringer has long been intrigued by renewable energy. Looking at his property from a distance, rows of solar panels are visible near one of his barns. Fehringer has nine wind turbines on his property, and one belonging to his neighbor is seen here, just north of his home. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

Several studies have found it takes a year or less for a wind turbine to pay back the energy used to manufacture and maintain it, and that they emit fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels over the lifecycle of each plant. Other researchers in Texas have found it can take as little as six months or as long as six years for the energy to be paid back.

The criticisms extend to costs. Turbines make it more expensive to spray pesticides from the air, as crop-dusting planes must carry lighter loads to navigate around towers.

And when the huge towers and blades begin to wear out, it can be unclear who bears the costs of removal. The decommissioning obligations in contracts tend to be vaguely worded, lawyers say. And many of the agreements have confidentiality clauses, barring landowners from discussing their terms.

For the project Fehringer is in, the company says only that equipment will be removed within a year of its ending. That date is not specified in documents reviewed by The Colorado Sun, including in an application filed with the county and draft and signed landowner contracts. The terms “termination” and “removal” are not defined. One document says the turbines are expected to last in excess of 25 years.

Fehringer assumes the project’s owners won’t be as eager to decommission the towers as they were to put them up.

“They’re not going to be so anxious to come in with brand new equipment and want to get this thing cleaned up,” he said. 

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A spokeswoman for EDF Renewables said the project was owned by Terra-Gen but did not provide further comment. Terra-Gen did not respond to requests for comment. 

Xcel Energy has a contract to purchase power from the 30-megawatt project that includes the turbines on Fehringer’s land, but it is not involved in landowner agreements, a spokesman said in a statement. The project’s owner is responsible for maintaining “operations according to their agreements,” the spokesman said.

Property rights and property tax revenue

Proponents of the turbines say they contribute millions of dollars in property tax payments that go to special districts and can offset funding the state sends to schools. 

Combined, all the wind projects in Logan County are expected to provide $2.2 million in tax revenue, about 13% of the county’s income from property taxes this year, according to figures provided by Logan County officials. Between building permits and various taxes, wind projects have contributed at least $25.3 million to the county since 2003. 

Logan County Commissioner Joe McBride said the three turbines on his in-laws’ Peetz property had helped them get through rough farming years.

Byron Pelton, another county commissioner, said he doesn’t support “the wind power or the green energy” but is in favor of private property rights. 

“There’s still a lot of people out there that don’t like them,” said Pelton, who is running unopposed for state Senate as a Republican. “I completely understand where they’re coming from. But again I don’t want to deny those people,” especially at a time of high inflation. 

New energy developments are an adjustment, he added. 

An oil and gas well was put in by his grandmother’s house when Pelton was growing up. It made a “pop pop pop” noise at night, where previously they’d heard silence. 

“It just changes the way that you’re used to living out there,” Pelton said. “I think that it bothers people when that happens.”

Still, the turbines that already dot the Eastern Plains have sparked criticism. Farmers report seeing them leak oil, used as a lubricant. Blades have filled up landfills, a blow to the image of the renewable energy industry. 

One turbine in Logan County malfunctioned in June when a blade struck the tower, causing it to collapse. It folded in half, its nose to the ground. Representatives for Florida-based NextEra told county commissioners that the 73 turbines remaining in that project — owned by Niyol Wind LLC, a NextEra subsidiary — could be susceptible to the same problem. They are now being monitored. It was the fourth such malfunction nationwide.

A Niyol wind tower bent in half. (Loretta Davidson, Contributed)

NextEra worked with the turbine’s manufacturer, General Electric, to “create an algorithm that will detect potential blade problems of this type before they result in turbine malfunction,” NextEra Energy Resources spokesman Steve Stengel said in a written statement. There have not been turbine failures since then.

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Fourth-generation farmer Brooke Mollohan-Cook can see the Niyol project turbines from her home in Logan County. She believes they detract from the expansive beauty of the plains. 

Brooke Mollohan-Cook takes a moment at her kitchen island as her kids buzz around her helping prepare dinner before their dad returns home from their farm processing corn. Just outside their windows, long rows of wind turbines appear on the horizon at sunset, bright red lights turning on automatically as daylight diminishes. As the lights come on, they pulse consistently and are visible for miles, reminiscent of an airport landing strip running right through the middle of open farmland. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One evening in June, she gazed at the row of red lights on top of the towers, flashing like those on an airport runway. She reflected on how the Milky Way used to be visible on clear nights in this part of the county.

“I feel like we have a really good resource here that we’re just giving away,” she said.

In October, she learned nearly all her neighbors had leases for a new wind project that could leave her surrounded by turbines on all sides. 

“I’m devastated,” she said.

A wind farm, seen in Washington County from Highway 71 in June 2022. Red flashing lights located atop each wind turbine are installed to alert pilots in the dark, but can be seen as a nuisance contributing to light pollution. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Wind companies court landowners and counties

There’s more information now about wind lease contracts than when Fehringer signed 20 years ago. Residents exchange information in Facebook groups. More lawyers specialize in negotiating the agreements. 

The towers have gotten taller. And the frequency with which land agents approach landowners has also increased.  

“The first thing they’ll say is ‘well, so-and-so signed up and you’re going to miss out unless you jump on the bandwagon,’” said JoNell Mollohan, who has farmland in Logan and Washington counties.

The promise of needed tax revenue can be used to entice county officials, who may fear that any regulation will steer wind developments to other areas, Mollohan said. At least a dozen communities that opposed wind projects across the country have faced legal challenges from renewable energy companies, costing some thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Mollohan, who is Mollohan-Cook’s mother, serves on the planning and zoning commission in neighboring Washington County.

“I think the wind companies think we’re easy targets and we’re just there for the taking,” she said.

In July, Washington County property owners received a letter from EDF Renewables pitching leases for a new wind project. The company said landowners could expect to be paid $15,768, $17,739 or $19,710 per turbine per year, depending on the contract terms, more than 15 times more than Fehringer gets. 

The same month, property owners in Morgan County got a letter about a proposed solar project.

“Would you be opposed to earning more passive income from your land?” it asked. 

And, after Logan County began drafting wind regulations in 2022, Avangrid Renewables sent a letter to property owners it had contracts with saying the proposed rules could “mean turbines will not be sited on your property.” 

I think the wind companies think we’re easy targets and we’re just there for the taking.

— JoNell Mollohan, serves on the planning and zoning commission in neighboring Washington County

One proposed restriction, it said, would have set turbines 1,200 feet back from nonparticipating landowners’ parcels. The setbacks could eliminate about 50 wind turbines from the proposed project area, or 42% of the company’s planned project, an Avangrid spokesperson said in an email. 

“We look forward to continuing discussions with Logan County decision-makers and appreciate the opportunity to share the impacts that the proposed regulations would have on project viability, and, ultimately, the future of wind projects in Logan County, Colorado,” the spokesperson’s statement said. 

Logan County began adding regulations for renewable energy projects after a particularly contentious 2020 approval of a 74-turbine NextEra project around Fleming. 

County commissioners were inundated with emotional emails and postcards about the planned project, according to documents reviewed by The Colorado Sun.

Wind turbines loom large over property and farmland, some seemingly intertwined with power lines, driving north of Sterling US-138 and CO-113 toward Peetz. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

A group of residents wanted greater restrictions on where the 500-foot-tall towers could be, and proposed various regulations that could be waived if wind companies got the consent of nonparticipating neighbors who wouldn’t otherwise get lease payments.

Commissioners rejected a version of the proposed regulations as unrealistic. The project was approved. 

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The approval came with some conditions: Niyol Wind LLC agreed to remove buried cables, remove the foundations under each tower, and fill holes with topsoil when the project is done. Starting 15 years after the project starts operating, the company will also provide financial assurance to ensure the cleanup happens.

After seeing the fight in Logan County, some Washington County residents began advocating for wind regulations. Strand, the farmer in Otis, was among them.

She went to National Rifle Association events and local sports games to stick fliers about wind developments on car and truck windshields. She got a big county map, highlighted which properties had lease agreements with wind companies, and displayed it at the 2021 Washington County Fair. Some landowners looked at the map and were stunned to realize their property could be surrounded by turbines on all sides, Strand said.

Sally Strand keeps an oversized county map where she has highlighted properties with lease agreements with wind companies, marking present and possible future placement. She keeps the map at her home in Otis, CO, as well as a box filled with documents and local newspaper clippings. (Photos by Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
She and her husband love the unobstructed view from their front porch and the rest of their property, and they are working to keep it that way.

She’s not among them, but she’s concerned for other residents.

Washington County put a moratorium on wind and solar projects in 2020 to draft regulations. The rules it passed the next year include some of the strictest provisions in the state, including a required 1-mile setback from structures — far surpassing the 2,000-foot setback for oil and gas drilling.

Strand, though, still clicks regularly through clunky county recording sites, moving past death certificates and liens, to keep track of potential wind projects. She marks landowner leases with wind companies down on maps of each tract of land in the county, an accounting that may be the most detailed log of how the Eastern Plains could change in the coming years.  

“I think every county needs somebody out there checking to see what’s going on,” she said. “Who knows what’s next?”

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