Wind Energy: Rural People Hold the Power

Many rural people are sitting on proverbial gold mines. The strong, steady wind of remote rural areas is ideal for wind energy development. Wind turbines create jobs, landowner payments, and add to the tax base, but only if electricity can get to customers.

 

Communities that embrace wind development can reap the benefits. Installing turbines and building transmission towers creates jobs. More workers mean more diners in restaurants, shoppers in stores, and taxes for the community. Workers are needed to monitor and maintain the equipment after the construction ends, creating long-term jobs too.

Already, Midwestern states like Iowa and Kansas have benefited from wind power’s economic windfall.

 

Rural residents face a choice. But it’s not between accepting or rejecting wind. The choice is how to engage developers.

 

In the best cases, developers and communities work together to align their interests and mutually benefit. In the worst cases, developers put profits ahead of people and leave communities feeling manipulated.

Banding Together

 

Residents of Petersburg, NE formed their own limited liability corporation to negotiate with wind power companies, and then gave incoming construction workers a warm welcome.
Source: Kat Shiffler

From looking at examples of developer-land owner relationships, one thing is clear: for land owners to best engage developers, they must organize.

Thirty-two years ago, Montana Dakota Utilities wanted to build new transmission lines east of Beulah, North Dakota, to move electricity from a new power plant. Link Reinhiller recalled, “We split into something like neighborhood sections, which meant groups of six or seven neighbors getting together. We still met as a big group, but this way everyone’s voice was heard.”

Land owners got what they wanted. The company wanted to use steel transmission towers, but they listened to the residents and put up wood structures instead. Residents who preferred lump-sum payments received them. For those who wanted smaller annual payments, the checks are still coming 30 years later.

Link concluded, "You have to have a company that is willing to work with you. Montana Dakota Utilities needs to be commended for their attitude to work with us."

Ill Feelings
For communities facing developers, the three most important lessons from Hazen are to organize, aggregate power, and negotiate. But it’s not always that easy.

Tony Thompson lives just east of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. His community was courted by wind developers, and at first his town was excited. But the developers put their own interests ahead of the community’s.

They didn’t accurately state the environmental impacts and failed to provide enough objective information. Worst of all, they approached landowners one by one, getting them to accept lower and lower payments. In fact, as Tony put it, once one or two neighbors got on the wind bandwagon, there was nothing anyone else could do.

The developers did indeed bring wind turbines, along with jobs and economic investments. But the damage had been done. The community believed it had been exploited, and ill-feelings persist between the town and the company.

Unfortunately, this kind of story is more common than it should be. Transmission developers have been guilty of ignoring owner preferences, for example, stretching towers and cables right through fields, rather than along fence lines. Contentious power line projects like the Badger-Coulee project in Wisconsin highlight the conflict between transmission companies and the people they affect.

Banking on the Future
For communities the song remains the same: organize. The people of Hazen did it 30 years ago. And the people of Petersburg, Nebraska, have followed suit.

Like many small Nebraska towns, Petersburg was looking to boost its economy and attract new life. When wind developers identified the area as prime, residents listened. Having stimulated local interest, the developers tried to pick off landowners one-by-one. But residents organized instead.

Petersburg’s citizens took the time to hear each other out and gave each voice its due. Although the process took much longer, a stronger agreement was eventually reached by making sure everyone felt heard.

As Ross Knott, Petersburg resident and president of the local bank, put it, “You need those opposing views because it brings things to your attention. Questions on noise, aesthetics – they’re all valid points. It takes longer to reach consensus, but it’s worth it in the end.”

The landowners formed a limited liability corporation to negotiate with the developers. And the developers agreed to many of the community’s demands. As workers swarmed the town to construct the turbines and transmission infrastructure, Petersburg built a new supermarket and tried to make the workers feel welcome.

“The first day of construction, our community whipped up some pancakes and brought out the welcome wagon. We visited the workers on-site and told them how happy we were to have them,” Knott said.

This goodwill reaped dividends for the community. Many workers chose to live, shop, and spend in Petersburg. Yet it wasn’t all rosy. Because the turbines are under warranty for the first five years, company workers, not local workers, must be brought in until the warranty expires.

Unlocking Opportunity
The developers are coming. Wind resources are too lucrative for them to ignore. Communities that organize hold the power. Listening to neighbors and aggregating power can take time and patience, but the results are worth it. Done well, wind energy development can help make rural places stronger.

Easement payments can compensate landowners for the use of their property. Money is funneled back into the locality through property taxes, benefiting schools, roads, and more.

New blood can help businesses thrive. In Petersburg construction crews spent money locally, creating a cascade of economic development. After the temporary workers leave, local residents can benefit from new jobs.

Petersburg resident Ross Knott summed it up, “The best case scenario is five years from now, all those jobs are held by people from the Boone County area that wanted to return home. And they’re all raising a family, sending kids to our school system, buying groceries, supporting our community.”

Organizing is the key to unlock these economic opportunities. Communities have the power. Literally.

Paul Mansoor is a former energy policy intern for the Center. Paul has moved on to Seattle. Send your comments to Johnathan Hladik, johnathanh@cfra.org. A longer version of this article first ran on Daily Yonder.