March 9, 2020; Daily Yonder
A fierce wind of acronyms is blowing across rural America: WINDCOWS (Wisconsin Independent Citizens Opposing Windturbine Sites), River RATS (River Residents Against Turbines), SOUL (Save Our Unspoilt Landscape). The UK’s not immune, what with England’s STINC (Stop Turbines in North Cornwall) and STEMM (Stop the Exploitation of Mynydd Mynyllod) in Wales. All are grassroots groups organized to oppose the siting of wind turbines in their fields and on their ridge lines.
Their protests sound common themes about the proposed turbines. They’re noisy, they allege, with low frequency buzzing punctuated by “whomps” like the “sound of shoes in a dryer.” They mar bucolic views and reduce property values. They endanger bats and birds, and they cause stress, sleeplessness, and dizziness in humans. And with a lifespan of about 20 years, it costs more than $25,000 to tear old turbines down and restore the land.
Some of these anti-turbine groups have seen success. In New York State, for instance, opponents in more than 120 jurisdictions across 24 states in the past decade have persuaded elected officials to reject or restrict wind-energy projects.
Turbine proponents, on the other hand, have their own considered arguments. Wind energy projects bring money to economically struggling rural locales. They provide annual lease payments to beleaguered farmers, fund improvements to public roads, and give sorely needed tax revenue to towns, school districts, and counties. Furthermore, wind projects are green, generating carbon-free electricity as we seek to move from oil, coal and gas.
Both sides find reputable research to support their claims. And, in the course of the battle, communities are polarized. “I have neighbors who go to my church who have supposedly signed up,” said one landowner in southwest Minnesota. “You go to church with these people and you have to share the peace. How do I shake hands with a guy who doesn’t care if a windmill is in my backyard, devaluing my property? He thinks this is going to save us, and it’s not.” And in rural Texas, a ranch owner about 70 miles northwest of Dallas opined, “One of the saddest parts is how it divides the community, how people no longer speak to each other, how family members no longer speak to each other.”
There has to be another way for a rural community to approach renewal energy development, and that’s why last month’s “Energy Dialogue” in Murray County, Minnesota, sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center, is both inspiring and instructive.
Deep in southwestern Minnesota, Murray County is prairie country, not far from the banks of Plum Creek where Laura Ingalls Wilder set her books. Residents say the wind never stops, and indeed the county has 255 wind turbines dotting the horizon. Most people’s opinions are mixed about whether there should be more. So, for two-and-a-half days in late February, a group of 18 randomly selected (and demographically representative) residents sat together in downtown Slayton, the county seat, to generate a shared recommendation about how their county should handle future wind development.
First came the learning. A local nonprofit talked about the energy sector—markets, transformations, and development processes. The county administrator shared information about its budget and its decision-making. A county commissioner presented on the economics of wind development for landowners and local government. And a wind developer gave his perspective on regulations and siting considerations. Importantly, participants shared their own 20 years’ worth of individual experiences with wind energy projects.
Deliberations followed, with the phrase “getting used to it” heard again and again. Participants articulated the tension they felt, knowing that they’ll bear the brunt of the changing landscape while urban users are the main beneficiaries of the clean energy. They also noted that their roads were appreciably better than those in surrounding counties that didn’t have wind energy investments—the state’s wind energy production tax provided $2.1 million to the county budget in 2019. Farmers talked about how the annual lease payments helped them stay solvent. Some participants talked about their grandchildren and the need to care for the environment for future generations.
Finally, the 18 participants voted on the question, “Based on what you’re learned through this experience, do you feel residents should support expanded/future wind development efforts/projects in Murray County?” Six voted “Yes, under most circumstances/whenever possible,” and 12 voted “Yes, but only if certain conditions are met.” These 12 citizens now understood that their local government had the power to require appropriate setbacks, cleanup at the end of a turbine’s life, company transparency, public engagement, farmland protection, and the creation of locally held jobs and contracts. Though the vote was 6 to 12, the participants were not divided. They were discerning.
The Murray County Energy Dialogue is part of a larger Rural Climate Dialogues program throughout Minnesota focused on climate change, energy and community resiliency. Using the Citizens Jury method, the power of these dialogues can be augmented through extensive public outreach, community organizing, an active web presence, and media coverage.
The path to just and sustainable energy and economic futures in rural communities is filled with tradeoffs. The solutions are neither simple nor obvious. Yet our cities and suburbs need these rural communities to be engaged in developing these solutions, since these places are home to most of our nation’s energy production, whether oil drilling, gas fracking, coal powering, solar farms, or wind turbines. Skillfully facilitated civic dialogues are perhaps the only path to effectively addressing a community’s complex and divisive challenges, whether it’s building a prison, permitting a Walmart, hosting a waste dump, tolerating a hog farm, or welcoming refugees.
Now we just have to figure out how to do it all remotely, ensuring the appropriate social distance.—Debby Warren