DEXTER – Ray Tucker has been studying wind energy for more than a decade. While prominent politicians have engaged in a spirited back-and-forth over the pros and cons, the long-time Mower County commissioner still can’t come up with a single negative when put on the spot.
With one of the county’s 284 wind turbines on his farmland, a $5,000 check rolling in annually, and Mower County receiving $1.2 million via the wind energy production tax in 2012, it’s become a familiar refrain among citizens and officials in the sparsely populated, rural region.
“When they were building these things, the economic impact was huge,” Tucker said of the five local wind projects, which are most prominent along Interstate 90 north and south of Dexter. “They were staying in our hotels, eating at our restaurants and drinking at our bars.
“After they’re up and running, we still haven’t had any complaints.”
The push for renewable energy began as a relatively small boon for Mower County, which received just $13,577 in 2005 through the wind tax as the first turbines were erected. When Minnesota adopted its ambitious renewable energy standard in 2007, turbines quickly became a more prominent fixture in the flat, windy landscape – with increasing local rewards.
Mower County’s financial benefit for hosting the turbines has increased seven consecutive years. The county received $1,497,019 for 2012, 20 percent of which goes to townships. During the construction phase, sales at some local businesses doubled or even tripled.
“That revenue is becoming huge,” Tucker said. “I would hate to generate another $1.2 million from the county (through taxes). It’s a win-win thing. In fact, with the economic downturn, I wish we had another project here.”
Pleasant Valley Wind, a 300-megawatt project sited in Mower and Dodge counties, was issued a site permit by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 2010, but hasn’t been built due to the lack of a power-purchase agreement. The site permit expires later this month.
Mower County Finance Director Donna Welsh says the wind tax revenue had the same effect as cutting taxes by $74 on a $150,000 home in 2011, something she says most citizens don’t even realize.
“The impact is so essential to what we actually have as revenue,” she said.
The turbines also require frequent maintenance and repair, which has led to at least three full-time service offices opening within the county that account for more than 20 full-time jobs. Other technicians serve a region rather than a specific site, making such numbers difficult to track, according to Riverland Community College’s Steve Vietor, who heads one of three wind turbine technician training programs in the Minnesota State Colleges and University system.
All 104 graduates from Vietor’s program in Albert Lea, which began in 2009, have landed jobs in the wind technician industry. The 100-percent job placement rate during the recession is a point of pride at the university, along with the significant waiting list to enroll in the two-year program.
The open-armed acceptance of wind developments in Mower County contrasts sharply with what’s taken place in Goodhue County during the same period. While more than 400 megawatts has been installed in Mower County, not a single wind project has been built in Goodhue County as citizen opposition groups and county officials have effectively created a series of roadblocks during the permitting process.
Concern over shadow flicker, stray voltage, setbacks, bald eagles and other issues have either slowed or blocked four different wind projects, including turning the 78-megawatt AWA Goodhue project into a highly volatile battle between citizens and the wind company.
“When you try to fit in a project like that into a high population like that, it’s only natural that you’d find increased resistance,” said Great River Energy’s Renewable Energy Lead Mark Rathbun, who signed a power purchase agreement with the 100-megawatt Prairie Star Wind Project in 2007.