(Photo by Joel Rivlin via Creative Commons)

For struggling rural communities, wind farms a welcome boon

Whether a wind farm is opposed or embraced by neighbors depends a lot on where it is built.

And a new study finds that for rural Midwestern communities that often are confronted with dwindling populations and revenues, wind farms are seen primarily as a welcome economic development — even if developers’ promises don’t completely pan out.

“In other places, you see a lot of opposition to wind energy, and projects are being blocked,” said Jeffrey Jacquet, an assistant professor of sociology at South Dakota State University, and one of the researchers. A study done a couple years ago found that proposed wind farms encountered resistance in about 45 percent of cases, according to Jacquet. In a community on the outskirts of the Twin Cities, he said, people “are vigorously trying to block a wind farm from being constructed.”

It’s more of an exurban community, he said, and people as a result may have “different notions of what land should be used for.”

In an attempt to gauge residents’ views of wind turbines, Jacquet and another researcher from South Dakota State University earlier this year conducted a survey and interviews among residents in a pair of adjoining and sparsely-populated South Dakota counties with two different wind-farm stories.

In Hyde County, one wind-energy developer put up 27 turbines in 2003. In Hand County, British Petroleum planned to build what was rumored to be the largest wind farm in the world, with 1,000 turbines. After erecting 10 turbines in 2009, however, BP pulled out and focused its resources on natural-gas extraction, according to Josh Fergen, a sociology graduate student at the university and one of the researchers.

Fergen wondered if the dashed plan for a huge wind farm would sour the residents of Hand County on the wind industry, as compared to the residents of Hyde County, where a 27-turbine farm was successfully operating.

In both counties, according to Jacquet, people started out with “very positive expectations” about how the wind farms would impact the local economies. As it turned out, their expectations were not met in either case.

“The reality was that jobs weren’t as great as they expected, and tax revenue wasn’t what they expected,” Jacquet said. “However, they still had positive impressions at the end of the day.” The residents of the county where BP said it would build 1,000 turbines had higher expectations that people in the neighboring county. But in the end, he said, they were just as satisfied.

“They see any development as good development,” Jacquet said. “In a lot of rural communities there isn’t a lot of development and people are worried about economic decline and population loss. So maybe it didn’t turn out to be the over-1,000 turbines they projected, but at least they built something and the land was being used for something.”

“We’re looking at counties that are experiencing some population loss,” Fergen added. “This wind energy development provides an avenue for the county and the school district to receive some benefits. Even if it’s not what they expected, it still helps.”

It can pay off for them in another way, in terms of hometown pride, said Fergen, who grew up in South Dakota.

“It helps to put them on the map,” he said. “There’s economic development and then, “Oh, we’ve got a wind farm here.”

The 238 respondents, about evenly divided between the two counties, expressed overwhelming support for wind energy in the abstract. About 92 percent indicated they favor wind-energy development across the nation. Only slightly fewer – 91 percent of respondents – expressed support for wind energy in their locality.

In a seeming paradox, those not supportive of wind energy tended to be those who most strongly identified with environmental values.

“At first blush you’d think it would be the opposite,” Jacquet said. The opposition among those identifying as environmentalists confirms research he did earlier in Pennsylvania. Although wind turbines avoid most of the issues associated with fossil fuel use, Jacquet said some people are more concerned about “disruption to wildlife and the natural landscape.”

The research team found that aesthetics enter in in another way. They asked residents if they found the turbines beautiful when in motion, or beautiful when not in motion.

“The ones in motion were found to be much more beautiful,” Jacquet said. “The narrative emerging is, ‘Do you view the landscape as a place of economic productivity? Is that what the landscape is for,or is the landscape more for retaining natural ecosystems and that sort of thing? A lot of people in the Great Plains see the land as a place for producing things. When the turbines are in motion and producing electricity, things are getting done.”

“There is a spectrum of opinion that seems to break down along environmental attitudes and what you think land should be used for. But in general, people seem to be in favor of it.”

One thought on “For struggling rural communities, wind farms a welcome boon

  1. South Dakota Story Taxes a History of past ten years of Wind Development

    Steven M. Wegman
    South Dakota Renewable Energy Association
    Post Box 491
    Pierre, SD 57501

    South Dakota is a state of less than 850,000 people with a Gross Domestic Product of less than $41 Billion. South Dakota does not have state income tax and tax base is based on state sale tax, state lottery, and contractor excise tax. At the local level county, townships, school district rely on property tax and some state aid. Towns and Cities have property tax and taxing authority to various sales taxes venues.

    With state of over 76,000 square miles and with electric load less than 3,000 Megawatts peak demand and ranked as one highest wind potential you would think what a slam dunk for wind.

    The government of South Dakota largest source of revenue is state sales tax, lottery and contractor excise tax. These three items make up over 70 percent of the revenue for South Dakota. The local county tax is split between the county and local school district taking the larger portion with smaller payments to townships, water district and various other local taxing districts.

    In the early 1990’s South Dakota started a rebate on the contractor’s excise tax for large projects. The rebate on contractor excise tax program was sunset by the State Legislature in 2012. In table one you will see the wind project that were built by year since 2002 to present and no wind project started or completed in 2012 or 2013.

    South Dakota legislature enacted Renewable, Recycle and Conserved Energy Objective in 2008. This object was to establish a goal for each retail electric provider of 10 percent from Renewables. In tracking this goal, only Heartland, Basin Electric, Xcel and NorthWestern built wind farms in South Dakota they remain utilities built their or purchased their wind from outside the borders of South Dakota.

    See table one for installed wind farms in South Dakota and table two is property tax paid to counties in South Dakota.

    In 2008 the State of South Dakota change to Alternative Tax and the “taxes” are paid to the SD Department of Revenue based upon the kilowatts of power produced. The tax is considered an alternate tax, see SDCL: 10-35-17. The State (Department of Revenue) then distributes the money paid to them to the Counties that have the wind farms located within and the County Auditor distributes this money to the local entities based upon their tax levy (see SDCL: 10-35-21) per agricultural real property.

    In 2013 the tax monies were distributed to the county and school district; and may include other tax enties such as ambulance district; water development district. The townships that the wind farm is located in did not have a levy in 2013 so they received nothing, however, this law has been revised for the distribution and in 2014 the schools will get 50%, Counties 35% and Townships 15%. This law went into effect 7-1-2013. The taxes need to be distributed to the Counties prior to May 1.

    The conclusion you can draw from is that wind energy development is very good for counties and local school districts in South Dakota in paying as low of $2,928 to high of $3,464 per megawatt of installed capacity for 2013.