May 31, 2011; Source: New York Times | Rural Sherman County, Oregon is so constantly gusty the trees all lean east, and resident Kathy McCullough likens it to “Iiving in a wind tunnel.” And since Sherman County permitted the first wind turbine farm in 2002, it has gained $17.5 million in new revenue from taxes, fees and assessments. In 2010 alone, the county gained $1,729 in such revenue for each of its 1,735 residents. Now, Sherman County is writing dividend-like checks for $590 back to each household.

For a traditional wheat-growing region that’s been losing jobs and population for decades, the impact of renewable energy has been profound. The county has been able to invest in new teachers, equipment, and even robotics in its single junior/senior high school at a time when surrounding districts across the state and nation are slashing their budgets. There are a whole slew of new job types that didn’t exist here a decade ago, and a booming training program at the local community college to fill them.

But the impact has not been even. Landowners who lease acreage to the wind turbine companies gain the most direct financial benefit, and since not all parts of the county have the same wind strength, not all landowners benefit the same. And the shared landscape and views of Mount Adams across the Columbia River Gorge are now punctuated with turbines.

Hence, the cash payments back to each household this year. As County Judge Gary Thompson explains, “There are a lot of people who live in the county who aren’t going to necessarily benefit from the renewable energy, and we felt we needed to share it with all the residents.”

Why $590? Judge Thompson explains that the county could afford more, but wanted to keep the payments under $600, so as to avoid the extra time and expense of issuing hundreds of related tax forms. After all, this is still a rural county with a small staff, and frugality is still a big virtue even with money blowing in on the wind.—Kathi Jaworski