READLYN, Iowa --- Green energy has some Northeast Iowa farmers seeing red. Not with the concept, but with a wind energy company.
More than a dozen grain and livestock producers who purchased wind turbines to cut energy costs and help the environment have had nothing but problems. The company that sold the turbines --- Earth Linked Energy Solutions of Story City --- is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Customers say the turbines cost far more than they've saved.
Attempts to reach Earth Linked owners Laura Royal and Nate Ante were unsuccessful.
The windmills, according to some owners, are beset with mechanical problems and often sit idle --- sometimes for months at a time. Other Earth Linked customers say turbines aren't as productive as company officials led them to believe. One producer said Earth Linked promised government aid to help pay for the project that never materialized.
Earth Linked customers recently joined forces to keep others from suffering the same fate. Seven turbine owners met at Ron Strottman's dairy farm near Readlyn in mid-December. Roger Bockes, who owns a troubled turbine at a hog operation near Grundy Center, is in contact with about a dozen fellow Earth Linked customers.
While turbine owners are still positive about wind energy --- many area projects are successful, including some sold by Earth Linked --- they urge people to be cautious as the industry evolves. Owners and industry experts suggest potential turbine buyers thoroughly research companies and seek advice from reliable experts, especially advisers without a financial stake in the decision.
Janice Martins of rural Fairbank, who attended Strottman's meeting, said her Earth Linked turbine is a mechanical nightmare and rarely turns.
"I think wind energy is a good thing ... but we need to educate people on what's going on," said Martins, who farms with her husband Doug. "Earth Linked is the problem."
Earth Linked won't fulfill warranty obligations or return calls, customers say.
The company's toll-free number is disconnected. Former employees said Earth Linked subcontracted with other businesses to rebuild turbines and supply electronics and software.
A happy ending for Earth Linked customers isn't likely, according to Bruce Thomsen, an Urbandale accountant appointed receiver of the company in August by Polk County District Court.
A lawsuit between Laura Royal and Ante is ongoing, and Royal asked Thomsen be appointed.
Earth Linked --- along with subsidiaries Earth Linked Wind Solutions, Earth Linked Growth Grants and E.L.E.S. Construction and Maintenance --- essentially ceased operations in August as funds dried up and employees were let go, said Thomsen. He's basically in control of the company.
Many local Earth Linked customers stay in touch with Thomsen.
"I tried to take care of people. (But) with no employees and cash accounts pretty much dried up," Thomsen said, there's not much he can do.
Thomsen conducted a financial analysis of Earth Linked and its subsidiaries. He declined to detail his findings. He's waiting on direction from the court, which could include bankruptcy proceedings.
Multiple Earth Linked customers said they've experienced problems. Some feel they were misled by Earth Linked salesman Jeff Royal, Lisa Royal's husband.
Jeff Royal denies the allegation. Though he feels sorry for past customers having trouble with turbines, Jeff Royal said he was simply the salesman and Ante should make things right.
Janice and Doug Martins purchased a remanufactured Windmatic 65 kilowatt turbine for about $240,000 from Jeff Royal in January 2010. Government stimulus and grant money paid for about half the project. The Martins obtained a loan for the balance.
Jeff Royal claims he doesn't remember dealing with the Martins. His signature is on the sales contract.
The Martins want to eliminate or put a big dent in monthly electric bills averaging $380 to $600 a month for their cattle and grain operation. When Earth Linked came calling --- the company sold about 50 turbines in eastern Iowa, according to a former employee --- the couple thought wind power was the answer.
According to financial and production estimates prepared by Jeff Royal, whose name is on the document, the project's payback was calculated at 4.2 years. The average annual income and savings was pegged at nearly $19,000.
"That I can't comment on. I didn't prepare any of that," Jeff Royal said.
During windy months, Janice said Royal assured her and her husband that electric production would exceed use and generate income.
"Everything sounded great. We need power to dry grain ... so we signed up," Janice said.
What the couple got, she said, was bad equipment and estimates.
"Everything you can imagine went wrong," Janice added.
The Martins' turbine went online in August 2010, ran for 13 days and broke down. It's run 53 days in the past year. Janice said the most it reduced their electric bill in a month was $73. And they still have annual payments of $20,000 for the turbine loan and $950 for insurance.
The Martins and turbine experts say faulty electronics and control equipment caused a myriad of problems, like brake issues, twisted cables and a generator blowout. Dozens of attempts to repair the turbine by Earth Linked failed, Janice said. Last August, she said the company quit helping all together.
"It was just misrepresented," Janice said. "I hope people don't get a bad taste in their mouth from wind energy. We just worked with a bad company."
Talk Inc., a wind energy company based in Sauk Centre, Minn., is in the process of repairing the Martins' turbine at the couple's expense.
Strottman bought two turbines --- a 65 kw Windmatic and a 33 kw Aeroman --- from Earth Linked two years ago to drastically cut his monthly $1,700 electric bill. He owns a 250-head dairy.
The project cost $410,000. Strottman received $123,000 in government economic stimulus funds and he got a loan for the balance.
The dairy farmer makes $3,700 monthly payments on the machines that currently sit idle. Since Earth Linked won't honor warranties on the machines, Strottman said he's hesitant to fork over more money to repair bad electronics, a burned out generator and solve electricity conversion issues.
"The bleeding has to stop some time," Strottman said.
Strottman said Jeff Royal promised him a sizable government grant would also offset the cost, which wasn't approved. Plus, Strottman said he was never told phase converters would be needed. Strottman's turbines produce three-phase power but his farm uses single-phase electricity.
"If they did, I would have said, 'no thanks,'" Strottman said.
Jeff Royal declined to comment on Strottman's allegations.
However, Royal, who owns Earth Linked Wind Solutions of Kansas, a separate company from his wife and Ante's venture, feels bad for his former customers. He thinks Earth Linked Energy Solutions should continue to help.
"I think they should. ... Nate (Ante) should fix everything," he said, while claiming no financial liability.
A call to Ante's cell phone for comment wasn't returned. Jeff Royal also provided a number for his wife's attorney, Brad Beaman, who didn't respond to an interview request.
Other local Earth Linked Energy Solutions customers report similar problems as the Martins and Strottman.
Rick Rottinghaus of rural Waterloo spent $316,000 on a 100 kw turbine, about half paid by taxpayers. It has run only two months out of the last 15, plagued with electronic and mechanical problems.
Rottinghaus billed Earth Linked $35,000 for repairs that haven't worked and lost production. It was never paid, he said.
Talk Inc. owner Adam Suelflow inspected Rottinghaus' turbine on Feb. 10 and will repair the machine.
"I still believe in wind energy," Rottinghaus said. "I'm trying to figure out how much I'm willing to stick into half a dead horse."
What to look for
Despite problems experienced by some Northeast Iowa turbine owners, industry experts say investing in small wind energy systems can pay off. The Iowa Wind Energy Association provides helpful tips for success.
Harold Prior, executive director of the association, said Earth Linked Energy Solutions did give the industry a "black eye." However, he said there are many reputable companies selling and maintaining machines.
"Buyers have to be very cautious with whom they get involved with. That's what we're trying to get across ... because there's tremendous potential for the industry," Prior said.
According to Prior, potential turbine buyers should:
Understand projects are complicated and hire quality consultants.
Study net electricity metering requirements.
Seek advice if a project is economically feasible.
Thoroughly research companies, insist on references from customers.
Steve Boevers of rural Readlyn is relatively happy with the 65 kw Vesta turbine he purchased from Earth Linked Energy Solutions 2 1/2 years ago --- the first sold by the company in the area, he said. There's been no mechanical problems so far.
"I'm one of the few lucky ones," Boevers said. "It's not putting out the kilowatts as promised, but enough that it should pay for itself in under 10 years."
Much more than originally claimed by Earth Linked, he said.
A family member who bought from Earth Linked is satisfied as well, Boevers said. The grain and hog farmer is contemplating buying another turbine to power a hog site near Fredericka.
For local turbines not running or operating efficiently, Suelflow said they can be fixed. Prior described Talk Inc. as a "shining star" in the industry.
Suelflow, a turbine technician, said about 20 Earth Linked customers have contacted him about repairing their machines. Several are operating with no problems, he said.
The primary problem is faulty controllers, Suelflow said, which caused other malfunctions. He's repairing machines with Talk equipment.
"Word spread like wildfire. We want machines to run, they do work," Suelflow said.
But at a cost. In some cases, former Earth Linked customers may have to pay tens of thousands of dollars.
For the Martins, it's either do that or waste more than $100,000 already invested. Suelflow estimated the Martins' payback will be eight to 10 years, including the extra repair bills.
"I think Talk will be our savior," Janice Martins said.