Wind Energy: Who Holds the Power?
[imgbelt img= HazenND-wind-speed530.jpg]Developers building wind farms and transmission systems through North
Dakota tried to settle with residents one-on-one, to divide and
conquer. But the people
of Hazen organized and negotiated their own terms.
There’s a lot of windpower in North Dakota. Dark purple areas, the windiest, measure 9 meters per second of power, pale purple 8.5, pink 8, red 7.5…. Rural communities are facing both benefits and disruptions from the construction of wind farms and transmission lines to move the power. The people of Hazen organized to get a better deal.
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
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.
Link Reinhiller, who lives and ranches near Hazen, was part of the local organizing effort working to get what residents were due from a wind power company.
“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
[imgcontainer left] [img:windlessons300.jpg] [source]NDSU Extension
Students in Bottineau County, ND, studied the mechanics of windpower, building their own model turbines last October in “Wired for Wind,” the 4-H National Youth Science Day’s 2011 experiment.
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.