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Wind turbines

Big Sky Wind turbines in Lee County, Ill., seen approximately eight miles away, from the 143 acres of native and restored prairie owned by Greg Wahl in Whiteside County, foreground.

DEER GROVE, Ill. — The plains hognose snake is a tan, brown and gray blotchy creature that measures nearly 30 inches and dines on frogs, toads and salamanders.

Now, it’s something else: a problem for a wind turbine project that proposes nearly 100 of the towers in three counties in northwest Illinois.

The hognose, ornate box turtle and the regal fritillary butterfly that slither, burrow and flit in Whiteside, Lee and Bureau counties do so with a certain privilege. It’s their habitat and all three species are considered threatened in Illinois.

The dilemma is that the first phase of the Green River Wind Farm project probably will harm that habitat, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources contends.

The promise of wind turbine energy is starting to give way to the realities of energy production. As more wind farm proposals sweep into Illinois  — the nation’s leader in new wind turbines last year — questions surface about how “green” an energy source they are.

“Everything has an environmental cost; it’s a question of which environmental cost do you want to pay,” said Keith Shank, a natural resources manager for IDNR and author of a 21-page report assessing the Whiteside County portion of the project.

Shank said it is challenging to build a wind farm that spreads across “dozens and dozens of square miles” and doesn’t have an environmental impact.

“In a general sense, I believe that wind is beneficial compared to other forms of energy generation,” he said. “But it’s a new thing and it’s a different thing.”

This latest concern, potential damage to rare habitat, comes at a somewhat tumultuous time for windmills in Illinois.

Boosted by one of the most aggressive renewable energy policies in the nation, the state last year built 404 of the turbines, the American Wind Energy Association reports. Every year, the association notes, wind turbines in Illinois generate $27 million in taxes and lease payments and enable the state to avoid releasing 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

But a federal tax credit for wind turbine developers expires at the end of the year, creating a rush to complete projects. At the same time, uncertain funding has hampered a state program aimed at helping to pay for renewable energy development through electric bills.

And, pockets of citizen discontent are percolating around the white towers that stand 400-500 feet tall from base to rotor tip. About 90 miles west of Chicago in DeKalb County, where a group filed a lawsuit over zoning issues in 2010, residents contended “shadow flicker” from the blades in sunlight causes headaches and nausea.

Others said rotor noise disrupts sleep. One DeKalb County resident suggested wind turbines contributed to the deaths of his goats.

Both sides of the lawsuit settled for undisclosed terms in 2011 but litigation is in the air in Whiteside County, about 40 miles west of DeKalb. The issues, like the DeKalb litigation, center on Green River’s purported violation of Whiteside County’s zoning ordinance.