Fast Company

Can Wind Power a Rural Renaissance?

Jon Bergstrom, a cotton and hay farmer in Sweetwater, Texas (population 10,472), looks outside his window every day and feels grateful. The giant white towers spinning on the near horizon have everything to do with it. Sweetwater is in Nolan County, which boasts more wind turbines than any other U.S. county. Its 1,253 turbines produce a total of 2,000 megawatts of electricity per year at peak. (Coal-fired power plants average 603 megawatts.)

Before clean, renewable wind energy came to Sweetwater, it was best known for its rattlesnake roundup, held every year since 1958 on the second weekend in March. Rattlesnakes may have put Sweetwater on the map, but wind is keeping it there, giving the town the sort of solid economic development American rural communities desperately need. Sweetwater offers a glimpse of what's possible if the United States actually focuses on becoming a world leader in alternative-energy technology and creating a green economy.

Wind power has given landowners like Bergstrom some juicy annual lease revenue. The 13 turbines sitting on his farm earn him at least $52,000 a year, a figure that he says is scheduled to go up. Next year, wind companies are expected to dole out $15 million to Nolan County property holders.

What really makes Bergstrom happy, though, is the thought that his two grandsons, now 3 and 8, may actually want to stick around. (One of Bergstrom's two children left Sweetwater for greener -- and more urban -- pastures in Austin.) "There's nothing better than being able to spend time with those boys," he says.

The value that wind is bringing to Nolan County gives his grandkids more reasons to stay. Wind farms offer significant property-tax revenue to counties, which means those boys are likely to get a much better education than they would have before. Between 2002 and 2007, wind companies put $23.7 million in the coffers of the county's four school districts, and each district has either erected a modern school building or has one under construction.

There are also good local jobs available. Because wind turbines are such massive structures, their manufacturing, installation, and service has to happen locally. That means the return of some of those all-American well-paying blue-collar jobs -- $12 to $23 an hour for manufacturing and $20 to $30 an hour for maintenance -- that have disappeared overseas. Sweetwater's unemployment rate is just 3.5%, and over the past two years, the county gave residents a 30% property-tax reduction, making the area even more livable.

Sweetwater is not an isolated wind success story. Home prices, down about 20% nationally since their euphoric high in the summer of 2006, are only down 5% in the dusty town of Pipestone, Minnesota (population 4,095), where 450 new jobs have been created since a turbine-manufacturing facility and service operation opened in 2007. Farming families in Lamar, Colorado, are getting annual checks for more than $250,000 apiece in lease revenue.

What these small towns have in common is not just geography -- they're all in the wind-swept Midwest and West -- but proximity to reasonably adequate transmission lines. That's what's needed to carry that wind energy to larger metropolitan areas.

If wind is going to power a rural renaissance, policy makers in Washington must put in place a strategy to fund the building of new electricity transmission lines that will connect more rural areas to big population centers where most energy is consumed. Construction estimates for this modern clean-energy superhighway? About $60 billion. If it means new jobs and middle-class affluence, as well as carbon-free energy independence, it may be one of the best investments that we can make.

Add New Comment

10 Comments

  • Dino Mason

    I think the key is to maximize a wind farm's impact vs. it's size. Keeping it compact (only a handful of vanes per location) would do well to help out a local community while keeping installation and maintenance costs down. Off-shore windfarms (like one off of Lake Erie, in my locale) would a viable option as well. In light of current energy costs, It's something we need to get the ball rolling on right away. As far as aesthetics go, that's a small issue, in my opinion. It's no worse than having an antenna array in an open location.

  • Dino Mason

    This could be huge, especially in the Midwest and Plains states, even in South America, Africa, and Asia. The question is, are government leaders (local, state,and federal) willing to be forward- thinking enough to make the investment in the foundation for wind energy?

  • Wendell Lee

    Wind is NOT reliable, solar is NOT reliable. I have submitted my idea to Mr. Steven Chu, the new energy secretary of a reliable energy source but since I do not have a multi-million lobbing firm behind me I doubt that it will be taken seriously. I will state though that this whole green energy crisis is a fraud because the technology to make a reliable and safe and clean energy source can be done but is not being looked at.

  • Ken Smith

    The answer is not investing in new transmission lines, the answer is in build a distributed system where municipalities, commercial buildings, and homes all take a small portion of load off of the already over-taxed grid. Only with an energy Internet will we see significant traction towards energy independence. And these are not 400 ft. turbines where neighbors do not benefit, but small turbines, small solar, small geothermal, etc. where the benefits go directly to the stucture, property owner, or community where the power is being generated.

    Read more about why we need a distributed renewable energy network at www.buildbabybuild.net

    And if you power your home with renewable energy, put it on the map at www.buildbabybuild.net/blog/re...

  • P S

    There are now 100 400foot giant turbines in view of our Iowa farm. We do not participate in any of the benefits but our serene view has been destroyed. These turbines are within 3 miles of the county seat. Farther north the turbines criss-cross the main road through Arcadia, IA. None of the landowners own the turbines, just a small annual lease payment. The turbines are noisy and blink red at night. During the day they cast a long shadow across everything in their path. The state of Iowa has not protected its citizens and most are ignorant about the limitations this "lease" causes. I only hope that these are the only commercial wind turbines to be built in my area. Also, the local utilities have ways of preventing local land owners from erecting their own small turbines to power individual farms. Most farmers pay outrageous utility bills to the electric company - owned by guess-who? Warren Buffet's Midamerican Energy. The neighboring state of Minnesota, however, has great net-metering laws that protect its citizens and allow them to benefit from owning their own turbines. Wind energy is not free - it costs many people their peace and quiet.

  • P S

    Oh, and by the way, not too many people can point to an increase in their home values due to wind turbines. More likely, their presence is a negative influence on potential buyers who also do not benefit from them.

  • P S

    Oh, and by the way, not too many people can point to an increase in their home values due to wind turbines. More likely, their presence is a negative influence on potential buyers who also do not benefit from them.

  • P S

    Oh, and by the way, not too many people can point to an increase in their home values due to wind turbines. More likely, their presence is a negative influence on potential buyers who also do not benefit from them.

  • sherry jansen

    The high cost of fuel this past year did serious damage to our economy and society. After a brief reprieve gas prices are inching back up again. Our nation should not allow other nations to have such power over us and our economy . We have so much available to us in the way of technology and free sources of energy. WE seriously need to get on with becoming an energy independent nation. We are spending billions upon billions in bail out dollars. Why not spend some of those billions in getting alternative energy projects set up. We could create clean cheap energy, millions of badly needed new green jobs and lessen our dependence on foreign oil all in one fell swoop. I just read an eye opening book by Jeff Wilson called The Manhattan Project of 2009. It would cost the equivalent of 60 cents per gallon to drive and charge an electric car.If all gasoline cars, trucks, and SUV's instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. Why don't we use some of the billions in bail out money to bail us out of our dependence on foreign oil? This past year the high cost of fuel so seriously damaged our economy and society that the ripple effects will be felt for years to come. www.themanhattanprojectof2009....