Commentary: A Rural Community Considers the Complexities of Wind Energy
Using a guided process called “Citizens Jury,” a southwest Minnesota county considers some fundamental questions about the cost and benefits of wind turbines.
Residents of Murray County, Minnesota, value the small-town feel, knowing people wherever they go, peace and quiet, and a strong sense of community. Murray, with an estimated population of 8,300, is a primarily agricultural county in southwest Minnesota. As you drive through the prairie, you can see farm fields stretching to the horizon. The landscape has changed over the past 20 years, though. Today, Murray County has 255 wind turbines that dot the horizon. Sentiments about expanding wind energy production vary, and most people approach the topic with mixed feelings.
This is the context in which the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center hosted the Murray County Energy Dialogue from February 20-22. For two and a half days, 18 randomly selected and demographically balanced residents gathered in downtown Slayton, the county seat, to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on how they’d like to see their county approach future wind development. The people in the room came from many walks of life but most were tied to farming in some way, and several participants already hosted turbines on their land. Everyone was hopeful for the future of their community and eager to create a place where people wanted to live, work and play.
The Murray County Energy Dialogue is part of the larger Rural Climate Dialogues (RCD) program, which has facilitated community problem solving and leadership development in rural communities throughout Minnesota on the topics of climate change, community resilience and energy. The RCDs use the Citizens Jury method, which brings together a microcosm of the community to study an issue in-depth and generate a shared community response. These events have consistently provided a productive, educational and inclusive way to address complex and divisive challenges.
When it comes to contentious issues, there are often insufficient forms of engagement to foster respectful conversation and bridge ideological divides. It’s imperative that community members are front and center in conversations about issues that will affect them directly. Wind energy development can only be fair and equitable if the communities hosting it believe in the benefits, and the RCDs, including the recent event in Murray County, strive to identify challenges and maximize community benefits.
The Murray County Energy Dialogue featured four presentations as the foundation for discussion. A local energy-focused nonprofit provided information on market conditions, why an energy transformation is occurring and how the development process happens. The Murray County auditor and zoning administrator spoke on the county’s budget and decision-making process, including decisions around energy development. A Murray County commissioner spoke on the economics of wind development for the county and for landowners. Finally, a wind energy developer provided perspective on regulations and siting considerations such as wind resources, grid capacity, environmental studies and impacts on surrounding residences.
In addition to these presentations, participants’ direct experience with wind energy development informed their conversations. Murray County has hosted wind projects for over 20 years, and residents understand both the pros and cons. This awareness lent itself to nuanced discussion, which participants were eager for people outside their community to understand. One participant noted, “Wind turbines are great, but it’s not all roses. I want people in the cities to know that even though wind is OK, there are problems with it too.”
Another participant, a farmer who hosts four turbines on his land, shared a recording from his front porch. The pastoral landscape was dotted with turbines, and there was an audible soundtrack of whooshing and clanging. He’s gotten used to the noise over the years, he said, but not everyone might be so amenable.
The sentiment of “getting used to it” was repeated throughout the two and a half days. One participant noted, “After a few years, you probably don’t think about those windmills being on your horizon. But when it’s new, it’s a change, and nobody likes to see their countryside change in appearance.” In rural areas such as Murray County, residents bear the brunt of this landscape change in order to benefit energy users across the country. Participants noted this tension; their landscape was changing, but the energy resulting from this change was being carried off to cities where there is higher energy demand. For this reason, participants said communities should be heavily involved in the development process and should retain benefits locally that make the landscape change worth it.
Some benefits might be financial. Participants noted that the roads in their county were noticeably better than those in surrounding counties. They acknowledged that this was largely due to money from the wind energy production tax that in 2019 provided $1.2 million dollars to the county budget, none of which came out of the pocket of local taxpayers. And for farmers who host a turbine on their land, the lease payment can be a gamechanger, especially in today’s downturned farm economy.
Participants were also thinking beyond their own wellbeing. One person noted, “We should be thinking down the road about our grandchildren and how green energy might be better for the future.” This care for the environment and future generations came up multiple times and tied into another sentiment: a responsibility to set an example for the rest of the world to show how renewable energy can move us toward a healthier planet.
In their final report, participants in the Murray County Energy Dialogue concluded, “There are clear benefits to wind energy development, but also much more to learn. We hope to see expanded wind development and believe that it will be an overall benefit to the community if we acknowledge the challenges in our policy and ensure that our permitting reflects those considerations.”
At the end of the event, participants voted on the question “Based on what you’ve learned through this experience, do you feel residents should support expanded/future wind development efforts/projects in Murray County?” Of the 18 participants, six said, “Yes, under most circumstances/whenever possible” and 12 responded, “Yes, but only if certain conditions are met.” Those conditions included appropriate setbacks, thorough clean up at the end of a turbine’s life, including locals in the development process, making sure energy companies are transparent, protecting farmland and ensuring that most revenue stays local.
The Murray County Energy Dialogue is the second and final of a two-community, wind development-focused series of the Rural Dialogues program. These events provide a unique opportunity for community members in Greater Minnesota to share their voice on the future of local energy and to shape energy policy and action. At the end of the event, one attendee reflected, “I enjoyed the respect here. We acknowledged that even though we see things in a different way, we all have the best interests of Murray County at heart.”
You can read more about the Rural Dialogues at www.iatp.org/rural-climate-dialogues.
Tara Ritter is senior program associate for Climate and Rural Communities at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, which helped organize the dialogue in Murray County.