By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — What started with just a few wind turbines 20 years ago, now turns out nearly 20% of Minnesota’s electricity. But the towering blades haven’t come without questions and controversy in rural Minnesota.

WCCO has a progress report on wind energy’s real cost.

In last year’s Super Bowl, ad experts ranked Budweiser’s commercial that promoted wind energy as one of the best.

On a farm far away, the reviews weren’t as kind from a Facebook video that went viral.

“Hello, Budweiser. This is Tom Behrends from Jackson County, Minnesota. It appears you’re a big advocate of wind energy now. Thank you for supporting an industry that ruins people’s lives,” Behrends said into his cellphone.

Tom Behrends’ relationship with wind dates back 15 years. Deployed with the Red Bulls to Iraq, his then wife asked if the neighbors could put up relatively new technology.

“She sent me an email and said they want to put some wind turbines up across the road. I was kind of like, ‘I really don’t care, I like electricity that’s fine with me,’” Behrends said.

Behrends said he didn’t fully realize what it would mean until he returned.

“It’s intolerable to have turbines this close,” he said.

He’s spent years documenting what he calls disruptions. His once peaceful prairie life, Behrends says, has taken a permanent turn. Between his outside view and what he sometimes sees on the inside.

“To me it’s borderline criminal. Telling people it’s not that loud. Shadow flicker’s not going to bother you when they know it is,” he said.

Government regulations allow 30 hours of shadow flicker per year, when the sun catches rotating blades and casts consistent shadows. Fifty decibels of turbine noise a year is also permitted — similar to the sound of a dishwasher. Behrends believes there are no true ways to test the standards and that no one is tracking them.

“My feeling is they think everybody out here is a dang hick and they’re going to explain their way around this they’re basically going to say crawl back in your house and shut up,” Behrends said.

Perhaps what makes it worse, he isn’t making any money from it.

Fourteen years ago, WCCO visited farmers in Trimont who formed a wind cooperative of their own.

“The big concern with farmers when the wind would blow, it would knock down the corn, but now through this project when the wind blows it might knock down the corn but at least it was a good wind day,” Neal Von Ohlen told WCCO in 2004.

All these years later, Von Ohlen stands by that decision.

“I think for what we’ve done here, I definitely think so,” Von Ohlen said.

Farmers pocket $5,000 a year per turbine on their land. They also receive a land payment of $50 per acre as part of an equal LLC.

“We wanted to make sure everyone benefited. Then, you don’t worry if you get a turbine there’s not as much animosity between land owners where they end up,” Von Ohlen said.

With all the sprawling project complete, nearly 200 turbines now dot this southern Minnesota countryside, producing enough power for nearly 100,000 homes.

“After something’s there for a year you don’t even notice it. You really don’t. It’s just part of the landscape,” Von Ohlen said.

And, as far as any lifestyle complaints? The original landowners all agreed to extend their leases.

“If there were any issues health, flicker, noise, you think you would have had one that didn’t sign, but no, 67 out of 67 signed,” Von Ohlen said.

At the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, Associate Professor Jiarong Hong believes wind energy technology has yet to be fully explored.

“I think we are really on the leading edge of wind energy research in Minnesota,” Hong said.

The school is one of just a few with a dedicated turbine for research. After several studies, they’ve yet to find any direct health effects. Manufacturers make quieter turbines now. The U expects them to be bigger and better in the future.

“You don’t see this technology going away?” We asked.

“I don’t think so. I think it will keep growing,” Hong said.

The American Wind Energy Association says Minnesota has more than 2,400 turbines. Other wind energy groups say you can thank those turbines for some of the lowest energy bills in the Midwest. We pay 15% less than the national average. A savings of nearly $200 a year.

Liz Collin