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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.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.