Wind Energy: Who Holds the Power?
Daily Yonder/Windpowering America
Many rural residents are sitting on proverbial gold mines. The strong, steady wind of remote rural areas is ideal for wind development. Wind development means the building of wind turbines and other resources that draw energy from the wind and convert it to electricity.
Having a well to pump water from is great, but irrigation systems divert the water where its needed. In a similar way, wind turbines are like wells that extract power from the air. Just as we transport water from wells towards thirsty crops, we need transmission infrastructure to send the electricity towards power-hungry customers. Transmission towers, power lines and converter stations are the irrigation pipes that propel the power where it’s needed.
All this means rural residents are facing a choice. Communities that embrace wind and transmission development can reap the economic benefits. Local contractors can find work installing wind turbines and building transmission towers. More workers mean more diners in restaurants, shoppers in stores, and taxes for the community. Long-term jobs will be created, too: workers are needed to monitor and maintain the equipment after the construction ends. Already, midwestern states like Iowa and Kansas have benefitted from wind power’s economic windfall.
The studies are clear: clean energy development is an economic blockbuster. In Nebraska alone, a robust wind industry is expected to create over 30,000 jobs and produce over $7 billion per year. But the choice is 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.
From looking at examples of developer-community relationships, one thing is clear: for communities to best engage developers, they must organize.
Thirty-two years ago, Montana Dakota Utilities (MDU) wanted to build new transmission lines East of Beulah, North Dakota, right through the town of Hazen. The utility needed the lines to move electricity from a new power plant. MDU tried lining up the necessary easements or property compensation agreements with landowners following typical procedure: speak aggressively with landowners one-on-one and negotiate the lowest possible price.
Hazen wasn’t having it.
“At that time, the best thing we could do as a community was to organize,” says Link Reinhiller, long-time Hazen resident. Reinhiller said that local people began with informal meetings, eventually breaking into small groups.
“We split into something like neighborhood sections,” Reinhiller recalled, “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.” Some people wanted a lump-sum balloon payment right off; others wanted annual payments stretched over the life of the power plant. In every community, there are varieties of opinion, people with different needs and expectations from development.
But to this variation Hazen added something crucial. The residents retained legal counsel. “MDU knew we were serious,” said Reinhiller.
The utility couldn’t push the town around anymore. Community members realized they held the power--and they got everything they wanted. Though MDU wanted to put steel transmission towers up, they listened to the residents and put up wood structures instead. Residents who preferred lump-sum payments received them, while those who wanted smaller annual payments were satisfied as well; 32 years later, those annuity payments are still coming in.
For communities facing developers, the three most important lessons from Hazen are to organize, aggregate power (block together), and negotiate. But it’s not always that easy.
Tony Thompson lives just east of Sioux Falls, SD. His community was courted by wind developers, and at first his town was excited for the usual reasons: the promise of increased revenues, job creation, and clean energy. 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 property easements. In fact, as Tony put it, once one or two neighbors got on the wind bandwagon, there was nothing anyone else could do. The community’s negotiating power had been sapped.
The developers did indeed bring wind turbines, along with jobs and economic investments. But the damage had been done: the community believed 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
NDSU Extension 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 for wind farms, residents listened, intrigued by the potential of property easements, economic investment and long-term jobs. Having stimulated local interest, the developers tried to pick off landowners one-by-one and get them to agree to low-dollar terms. 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 Petersburg State 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 an LLC (a Limited Liability Corporation) to negotiate with the developers. And the developers agreed to many of the community’s demands, including putting in new sidewalks. 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, and we appreciated the business they’d do with us,” Knott said. This goodwill reaped dividends for the community. Many workers chose to live, shop, and spend in Petersburg.
Center for Rural Affairs
Yet it wasn’t all rosy--there were still bumps in the road. Because the turbines are under warranty for the first five years, company workers must be brought in for those initial jobs -- not local residents. Local workers can’t fill those posts until the warranty-window expires. Knott admits that early on, at times, the town didn’t feel respected by the developers. He saw the same thing that many other communities face. But he thinks the wind farm projects have been worth the pain: the jobs and revenue created and the revitalized energy in town have been a tremendous boon.
The developers are coming. The wind resources of rural communities 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, because such energy development – and the community work that responds to it -- can help make rural places stronger.
Easement payments can compensate landowners for the use of their property. Some of this money is funneled back into the locality through property taxes, benefitting local schools, roads projects and more.
And easement payments aren’t the only economic benefits. New blood can help businesses thrive. As in Petersburg, Nebraska, construction crews and operations workers can invest their money locally, creating a cascade of economic development. And after the temporary workers leave, local residents can benefit from new employment opportunities.
Petersburg resident Ross Knott summed it up: “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 works on Energy Policy in the Rural Policy Program of the Center for Rural Affairs, in Lyons, Nebraska.