Blue skies. Black cattle. A string of low, white clouds piling up like rush-hour traffic.
And strewn across the horizon, just a few miles northeast of town, are 50 General Electric wind turbines standing 262 feet tall, their white blades slowly turning, shadows spilling forward, an intricate series of access roads snaking between them like a shallow prairie stream.
By the end of the year, 43 more will sprout up beside them in this phase — called Broken Bow II — owned and operated by Sempra U.S. Gas and Power, a San Diego-based energy supply company.
Meantime, 300 temporary workers eat, drink and sleep in this community of 3,500. Total sales at the Pump & Pantry have risen more than 200 percent since February. The motel annex hasn’t seen a vacancy in four months. Next door, workers in orange vests line up daily at the Grocery Kart deli; they cash their paychecks here, too.
McDonald’s currently serves an extra 200 customers a day. Subway’s profits have risen by more than $1,000 a week. And rush hour at the Whiskey Barrel, the local liquor store, now arrives at 7:30 p.m., when the construction crews pack up their tools and drive back to town.
According to the Custer Economic Development Corp., when the last of the wind turbines go online, roughly $16 million in indirect and induced benefits will have trickled down from the construction that began here nearly five years ago, much of it circulating through Broken Bow and Custer County.
To most, that’s easy to celebrate. To the rest, it’s a morning flicker on the living room walls. It’s a noise that keeps them up at night. It’s a stain on the horizon, a loss of the privacy they sought out here among the yuccas.
“And just the pure immense size of them,” said Connie Stunkel, a retired schoolteacher. “It looks like they’re hovering on top of you — like a sentry or something, you know?”
Connie and her husband, Dave, both 67, live in a two-story farmhouse on 12 acres at the end of a long gravel road. Lines of barbed wire fade into the hills. Hay bales stack up like bread loaves in the nearby field. The turbines now surround them in every direction, one of them straddling the zoning boundary just a quarter-mile away.
“No matter which way you look, you see them,” Dave Stunkel said, looking out his window. “And no matter which way the wind blows, I get the noise.”
Some say it’s barely audible — like wind rushing through a pocket of cedar trees. Some call it a low murmur, like a dishwasher or distant traffic. Dave conceded the noise fluctuates, but at times, he said, “it’s just unbearable — like three or four jets going over at the same time.” In the winter, they said, the pitch changes, climbs higher; less a whoosh than a whine.
And it’s not just the noise, the Stunkels said. It’s the flicker, too. In the spring and fall, every morning for weeks at a time, the turbines to the east cut through the sunrise and throw a “strobe effect” across their property. They shut the blinds. They pull the covers over their heads. At night, they do the same, blocking the red safety lights that blink until dawn.
More than once, out working in the yard, they’ve had the feeling of being watched, like someone’s standing behind them, only to crane their necks and find the rotating shadow of the blades.
But there are no turbines on the Stunkels’ land. So unlike the property owners, they are not compensated for the inconvenience. They do not receive a royalty check each February.
Though land lease contracts are confidential, the Nebraska Public Power District — which initiated the wind developments as part of a goal to reach 10 percent renewable energy by 2020 — estimated annual payments somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000 per turbine.
“We have to put up with everything, and they get all the royalties off them,” Dave said of his neighbors. “The inconvenience they put on everybody else just to pad their pocketbook a little bit just gripes me.”
In 2009, following a series of preliminary wind studies, NPPD asked private developers to propose a wind farm near Broken Bow. Soon after it awarded a power purchase agreement to Edison Mission Group — since bought out by NRG Energy — and Midwest Wind Energy, a partner company.
The two groups began development later that year on a $145 million, 80-megawatt wind farm on about 14,000 acres north and east of Broken Bow. The project of 50 turbines capable of powering 25,000 homes went commercial in December 2012 and was expected to contribute $5.6 million to the state in sales tax revenue.
Sempra U.S. Gas & Power purchased Broken Bow II from Midwest Wind Energy in fall 2013. NPPD agreed to purchase the total output from both wind farms and has since resold portions to the Omaha Public Power District, the Lincoln Electric System, the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska and the City of Grand Island.
“It’s one of those things with any type of development, whether it be a cattle feed yard or a hog confinement: There are those that are going to be positively impacted and those that are negatively impacted,” said Dave Rich, sustainable energy manager at NPPD. “How does society compensate those who aren’t positively impacted?”
At Iowa-based MidAmerican Energy, it’s not a hypothetical question. MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, owns more wind-powered generation capacity than any other rate-regulated utility in the country.
In scenarios similar to that of the Stunkels, MidAmerican Energy issues what is commonly referred to as a “Good Neighbor Agreement,” which offers partial compensation to anyone in the footprint of the turbines.
“We approach those folks and say ‘We understand (that) no matter how hard we try, there could be a perception of impact on your property,’ ” said Adam Wright, vice president of wind generation and development at MidAmerican Energy. “So we’d like to offer you a Good Neighbor Agreement that basically says you understand the wind turbine is going there, you’re OK with it, and here’s some compensation because of it.”
Yet Broken Bow’s wind development hardly progressed without landowners support. Before ground was broken, several local committees were formed to feel out the potential effects on landowners and their property. Public notices were released. Residents were urged to attend. Tours of operating wind farms were scheduled for landowners.
In the beginning, more than 30 landowners attended the meetings, said Lynn French, a local wind energy advocate who helped usher the industry into Broken Bow. As the process evolved, some of them endorsed the developments and became advocates. Others, he said, simply stopped attending.
“It seemed like there was plenty of opportunity for people to not only know and understand, but to voice their concern, and for some reason that didn’t come out of the woodwork until the show was all over,” French said. “So I’m sympathetic with them, but I’m (also) disturbed, because we put a lot of effort into trying to help people know what was coming.”
The Stunkels don’t argue that, nor do many of the others who oppose the wind developments here. In fact, they attended many of the first meetings.
More than anyone they blame their neighbors, who they say should have warned them about the leases and the locations of the turbines before they signed, and NRG, who they said has since ignored their complaints.
“They could have come to us and said they were going to put them there, and there might be an inconvenience, and you might get noise or something,” Dave Stunkel said. “But until we saw the flag in the yard and the stake up there, we had no idea they were gonna be that close — and so many of them.”
When asked about the impact of turbines on nonleasing residents, Jeff Holland, director of communications and public relations for NRG, said simply: “They can definitely call NRG if they have specific complaints about certain issues they’re having, I guess.”
In a later email, he wrote: “The Broken Bow wind farm would not have been possible without the support of the participating landowners and the Broken Bow community, and is another example of how public power, private developers and the local community can work together to create a win-win situation for renewable energy and economic development.”
The Stunkels don’t expect much to change. What’s done is done, they said. The turbines are here to stay. Come fall, the flicker will return. And with the winter, the whine.
Outside, their grandchildren smile and hang from a tire swing. Inside, Connie washes the kitchen window, three turbines plainly in view.
Said Connie: “The open-country lifestyle we had before is gone.”