Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Locally Owned Wind Power: Quaint it Ain’t

• July 11, 2010 • 5:00 AM

The financial crisis is a blessing in disguise for community wind power, an underserved sector of the burgeoning U.S. wind industry. And turbines are giving old farms a second wind.

Kent Madison, a third-generation farmer in eastern Oregon, used to cuss when the wind blew hard and kicked up dust and kept him from spraying his crops. But now, with 18 windmills on his farm, he sees dollars, not dust, every time the wind blows. Those windmills are each bringing in $6,000 to $8,000 in rent yearly. In a dozen years or so, Madison, who farms wheat, alfalfa and vegetables on 17,000 acres, will own three windmills virtually outright, plus the revenues from the electricity they produce, plus he’ll still be getting rent for the other 15.

“It’s a pretty good little retirement,” he said. “The ground that the turbines took out of production was a total of six acres. It’s literally thousands of dollars I couldn’t make on low-value rangeland or dry land farming. Now, the wind blows and I go, ‘Look at that!'”

Madison and two of his neighbors, also wheat farmers, joined last year with three outside investor groups, including tractor-maker John Deere and Oregon Wind LLC, to build a 36-turbine wind farm on their land. The Echo Wind Farm, as it is called, is reportedly the only one in Oregon in which the local landowners will eventually own some of the wind turbines, a more profitable venture for them than simply leasing their land to a developer. The windmills have been supplying electricity to Pacific Power, serving Pendleton, Ore., since October.

All of the partners benefited from a new federal program, a treasury cash grant for renewable energy provided under the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009. The grant paid 30 percent of their construction costs, or about $49 million.

“It was the factor that tipped the economics in favor of the project,” Madison said.

In this way, researchers say, the U.S. financial crisis has proved to be a blessing in disguise for community wind, an underserved corner of the burgeoning wind industry in this country. Of about 80 wind farms that had received cash grants from the stimulus fund as of June 30, roughly 17 were community wind projects, according to Mark Bolinger, a wind economics researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

In a report this year for the U.S. Department of Energy, Bolinger noted that federal tax credits for wind power, which the government has offered off and on over several decades, have been a barrier for many local investors: They simply don’t have enough tax liability to take advantage of them. Cash grants, on the other hand, have “fundamentally reshaped the federal policy landscape for wind power in general, and for community wind projects in particular,” he said.

The downside is that in order to qualify for a grant, a wind farm must begin construction this year, at the latest, and must be up and running by the end of 2012. A bill introduced by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, would extend grant eligibility to any project under construction by the end of 2012.

“The cash grant program really does a lot to boost community wind,” Bolinger said. “But it’s a question of whether these projects can get their act together in time. The sector would certainly benefit if the grants were extended or made permanent. … Community wind may help farmers hang on to their farms and preserve that way of life.”

Community wind is one of the earliest development models for modern wind power, dating back to the early 1980s, when they were first widely used by farmers in Northern Europe. Today, community wind may include local farmers, businesses, investors, schools, universities and Native American tribes that have a direct financial stake in a project, as distinct from a land lease. The projects tend to be smaller than commercial wind farms that are built and run by “absentee” owners. By one definition, they may include municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives.

No matter how community wind is defined, Bolinger said, it is challenging to develop and finance.

“They’re smaller projects and are not as readily able to partner with investors who can inject tax equity, so that they can use the tax benefits,” he said. “In many cases, the cash grant provides more value to the project.”

A 2009 study by the National Renewable Energy Lab, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy in Golden, Colo., shows that community wind projects support more local jobs than commercial projects — three times as many during construction and nearly twice as many long term. Also, the research shows, they funnel more money into local communities and create public goodwill toward wind power.

“In local communities, there’s been little to no opposition to wind projects,” said Eric Lantz, a wind policy analyst at the Renewable Energy Laboratory and a co-author of the study. “There’s more pride taken when you’re able to participate with an ownership stake.”

But for all their advantages — local construction and contracting jobs, dividends for local shareholders, loans from local banks, reinvestment of profits in local communities — these projects account for only 2 percent of the wind power capacity in the United States, or 4 percent, if projects owned by public utilities are included. (Wind power of all varieties contributes 2 percent of all the electricity used in the U.S.)

Community wind may sound quaint, but as of 2000, it made up roughly 80 percent of all wind power capacity in Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom combined. Community wind in Europe is driven by feed-in tariffs, which require utilities to purchase wind power at premium prices for extended terms. These subsidies are generally not available in the U.S.

Minnesota is the No. 1 state for community wind, largely because the state began promoting it in the mid-1990s with cash subsidies. Minnesota utilities today are required to consider offering long-term contracts with favorable terms to community wind projects.

Lantz said the new federal grants help level the playing field for community wind.

“It’s still an open question whether they’ll be able to capitalize on these policies,” he said. “That long-term piece is critical if we want to see robust growth.”

On the Echo Wind Farm, Madison owns a 1 percent interest in three windmills, also called wind turbines, and John Deere owns 99 percent. In 12 or 13 years, after John Deere reaches a stipulated rate of return on its investment, the ownership will flip and Madison will own a 95 percent interest in three windmills. Two other farmers leasing their land have a similar agreement with John Deere for the ownership of three turbines.

Madison still can’t believe he’s getting paid for something he used to hate. Now he uses the windmills as giant weathervanes. If they’re turning, he knows he can forget about spraying his crops.

“I’m looking at the turbines right now up on the ridgeline,” he said, “and they’re turning. It’s a good day.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Melinda Burns
Former Miller-McCune staff writer Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science, and the environment.

More From Melinda Burns

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.