Response to Reader Critique of Wind Energy Work

Several of you have criticized our work on wind energy. Specifically, our support for utility-scale wind and transmission lines to bring energy from rural areas to urban demand centers. Critics contend that puts us at odds with community wind energy. We view it differently. Here’s why.

A Clean Energy Future
Climate change, energy security, and economic drivers demand we shift our electricity system to renewable resources. Scenarios of getting 80 percent of our electricity from renewables were once fanciful. Now they seem plausible.

Distributed, home-based, and community-based generation will help achieve the goal. But without utility-scale developments, we’ll fall short.

Transmission Bottlenecks
Our aging transmission system delivered power from large coal and nuclear generators directly to demand centers. Lines were never built in sufficient quantities throughout rural areas – home to our best wind resources.

Transmission bottlenecks are now a barrier for both community-based and utility-scale wind developments. No matter who owns the wind turbines, we must upgrade transmission to advance renewable development.

Capital Costs
Wind power is incredibly capital intensive. The capital needed is considerably greater than for family farming, even with today’s high land prices. The cost of a commercial-scale wind turbine ranges from $1.2 million to $2.6 million per megawatt of capacity. That puts ownership out of reach for most rural people. To the extent local capital exists, only the most well off can invest.

Investing in a wind project doesn’t help a beginning farmer get started. It won’t add profitability to a struggling family farm. But rental payments for hosting a utility-scale investor-owned project could. Strategies other than local ownership may create the most opportunity for people who are not already wealthy.

Creating Opportunity
Communities benefit from renewable energy in lots of ways. One is through community ownership opportunities. Payments to landowners who host turbines, increased property tax collections, and good jobs in wind turbine maintenance are others.

Solar costs are dropping too. Residential and farm-based use of solar energy may increase.

Here in Nebraska we’re encouraging employee ownership in wind developments. Innovative legislation would give employees of modest means a way to earn an ownership stake in a wind farm.

We are advocating new models for transmission ownership too. One proposal includes long-term payments for landowners based on a share of revenue generated by the line. Another proposal would provide local investment and ownership opportunities. These models have precedent in Canada and Germany.

In Summary
Advocating against new transmission would bring wind development to a near halt. Opportunity that could be captured for a struggling rural community might shift to offshore projects instead. And significant ground would be lost in slowing climate change.

Critics have suggested our support for utility-scale wind energy is driven by favoritism for big developers. It is not. As with all issues, we think carefully about how to maximize opportunity for communities and for moderate-income workers while balancing environmental considerations.

We’re working hard to engage rural people and partner organizations in a conversation about wind energy and transmission development. Our focus is doing it in a way that respects legitimate landowner concerns, maximizes opportunity, and protects our natural resources.

At the Center we champion renewable energy without demanding it all be done in a certain way. We criticize wind energy policies that are bad for rural areas. And we encourage use of wind energy in general. The wind blows hard out here. Let’s take advantage of it every way we can.