Drivers who head east to Canton on Highway 18 are greeted by rows of corn and soybeans, with hills rolling in the distance as the quaint community of 3,300 comes into view.
Before they reach the city’s historic Main Street or see the signs for its famous annual car show, visitors now see something else: A large banner affixed to a fence post against a corn field, featuring a white wind turbine in black circle, a red slash bisecting its blades.
“Protect our county from commercial wind farms,” the sign reads in all capital letters.
The sign, along with dozens of smaller placards dotting acreages across the county, refer to Dakota Power Community Wind, a project that aims to double the state’s wind energy capacity by building up to 500 turbines in south Lincoln County.
Backers say South Dakota is at a crossroads for clean energy production, poised to become a regional powerhouse thanks to decades of subsidies, lowering costs for turbine construction and transmission line projects that can carry South Dakota’s energy to larger markets in the east.
President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan could provide further incentive, assuming the scheme to reduce carbon emissions by 32 percent nationwide survives legal and legislative challenges.
The state’s Congressional delegation is opposed to the Clean Power Plan but regularly offer full-throated support of wind energy production in a state Sen. John Thune says has been “blessed with abundant wind capacity.”
Crossing the threshold from a state with wind to spare and a state with wind to sell won’t be simple.
Especially when its met with community resistance.
Hundreds of residents support We-Care South Dakota, a non-profit group committed to keeping turbines off the south Lincoln countryside. The plan to blanket a 200 square-mile swath of land with industrial wind turbines would destroy the area’s character, community and natural beauty, the group says.
The group has worked to block permitting for test towers, pushed for stricter zoning regulations and hinted at legal action if turbines are approved. Given the intensity, organization and wide support We Care has gathered, its efforts could derail the project or force it to relocate to more welcoming locations.
Even clean energy boosters, like Matt McLarty of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, acknowledge that challenges like those seen in Lincoln County and around the country are not to be taken lightly.
“These have become highly sensitive, emotional issues. To some extent, there’s no way around some of those ‘not in my backyard’ issues,” McLarty said. “We can talk about wind and solar being good for the economy or good for the environment, but in the end, it is an industry.”
Clean energy backers saw the announcement of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan last week as a potential boon for wind, solar and natural gas energy in South Dakota.
If the state could build enough wind power to help meet its own carbon reduction targets and sell enough to help other states meet their own, it could reap the rewards.
The future of the plan is uncertain due to potential legal challenges and the myriad ways states have to interpret and implement the rules, but one thing is certain: Wind power is set for expansion in South Dakota even if the plan is axed altogether.
Senators John Thune and Mike Rounds both support an extension of the production tax credit, which has boosted wind production for more than a decade, and electric cooperatives have moved to expand their wind portfolios in recent years.
The efforts have shown in the industry’s growth in South Dakota.
Over the past decade, wind has expanded to produce 950 megawatts of electricity. The primary vehicle for tax collections on those turbines is the nameplate tax, 50 percent of which goes to local school districts, with 35 percent directed to counties and another 15 to townships.
Those tax collections have grown steadily since 2008, according to the South Dakota Department of Revenue. Brookings County has collected the largest share, with $4.43 million distributed since payments began in 2009.
Between the declining cost of new turbines and a bill from the South Dakota legislature that trimmed nameplate taxes for producers after April, South Dakota Wind Energy Association Executive Director Paul Bachman sees wind as nearly ready to stand on its own.
The state still lags behind Iowa, where nearly 5,700 megawatts of wind power had been installed by the end of 2014, but the business is picking up steam, he said.
“Our developers are telling us that we have parity now, or at least enough so we can compete,” Bachman said.
That’s the argument from backers of Dakota Power Community Wind. Production tax credits might not even be a factor, according to Nick Sershen, who works with DPCW through Val-Ad Service Corp.
“For us, it pencils out even without the production tax credit,” Sershen said. “If you’re in a place with less wind, you might need that, but for us it’s not really a factor.”
What is a factor is transmission. Power can’t be bottled up and stored on a massive scale, so it has to move once it’s generated. Major transmission lines to out-of-state customers are lacking in huge portions of South Dakota, but that’s changing, too.
The CapX2020 line will move power from North Dakota to Madison, Wis., thanks in part to utility companies’ requirement for 25 percent renewable power in Minnesota.
Those lines wouldn’t help DPCW. Instead, it hopes to connect to the Rock Island Clean Line, which would pull power through Iowa to Illinois. The line has two of the three permits it needs to become operational – one in Illinois and another from the federal government.
Hans Detweiler, the line’s vice president of development, hopes the line will earn its third, from the Iowa Utilities Board, by 2016.
Opposition looms large
Opposition in Iowa brought the debate to the legislative floor in Des Moines this session. A “Block Rock Island Clean Line” Facebook page has nearly 5,500 followers, who talk of eminent domain and champion further setbacks for wind turbines.
“It’s sort of the Keystone of wind. You have pockets of landowners that express concerns about a project. You have that with the Rock Island Clean Line, as well,” Detweiler said.
The opposition in Iowa mirrors efforts of landowners in states like Wisconsin and Massachusetts and in rural Ontario, the scene for a documentary called “Down Wind,” which likens wind energy to a disaster for Canada countryside.
We-Care South Dakota’s resistance to DPCW project represents the most intense community action opposing a wind project so far in the state.
We-Care’s members appear in force at County Commission and zoning board meetings, wearing buttons announcing their position and speaking to elected officials about potential harm to wildlife, human health, property values and rural quality of life.
One retired couple, Carol and Henry Luebke, said last week that their concerns about property values are similar to dozens of others in the area. The Luebkes moved into their home near Newton Hills State Park in 2008. Henry Luebke worked 29 years for the Sioux Fall Police Department and the couple invested in property to earn enough to buy their home, which offers superb views of rolling hills and corn fields.
The couple moved to the outer edge of Sioux Falls years earlier, only to watch development creep into view. Sitting at their dining room table, a spotting scope affixed to a tripod and aimed out the back window, the Luebkes smile when they talk about watching deer, waterfowl and “the occasional bald eagle” pass through.
“We’ve been blessed to live in a really beautiful natural environment,” said Henry Luebke.
The prospect of being surrounded by a wind zone is not welcome, Carol Luebke said.
“Many of us around here are retired folks who have a great deal of their assets tied into their property,” Luebke said.
A few miles to the west, Emily and Steve Plucker have similar worries. The Pluckers are a fifth-generation farm family, working land that’s been in production since the 1870s. They moved into their home in 2002, taking up a daunting improvement project at the home of Emily Plucker’s deceased uncle.
The uncle had a cistern for water and relied on livestock for landscaping.
“He had a toilet in the basement with a shower head on the wall,” said Steve Plucker. “That’s all he needed.”
Since then, the couple has painted, put on an addition, renovated heavily and built a family. Their two children, 8-year-old Macy and 10-year-old Seth, attend school in Canton. Emily Plucker worries that families in the fast-growing county will be less likely to build in the area or move into existing homes if it means moving into view of a wind farm.
If the stories she’s heard about disrupted sleep from wind turbines are true, she said, the family might need to move out of a home they never want to leave.
“If even one of the impacts were true, it could mean we couldn’t be here,” Emily Plucker said.
The farm’s backers say the concerns about health, wildlife and property values are overblown, and they appear at county commission meetings to say as much.
Not everyone sees wind turbines as a blight, they say, and the benefits outweigh the costs. The commission sided with the wind group last month when it approved temporary permits for five meteorological towers that will test wind capacity.
Bachman said he understands the concerns of landowners. Economic development projects can change the character of a neighborhood, but “you have to look at the benefits.”
Several counties in South Dakota have eagerly accepted wind development with open arms. White Lake’s city website proudly displays a landscape dotted with turbines.
If local tax bases are to reap the rewards of economic development, Bachman said, change is inevitable.
“You can’t have one without the other,” Bachman said.
Wind farm tax collections
The nameplate tax is the mechanism by which per-kilowatt hour tax payments are collected from wind farms in South Dakota. Half the collections go to the local school district, 35 percent go to counties and 15 percent go to townships. Here’s the history of collections in South Dakota, broken down by county, since collections began in 2009.
Mc Pherson $129,940
Mc Pherson $296,336
Mc Pherson $293,965
Total: $1.14 million
Mc Pherson $298,235
Total: $2.43 million
Mc Pherson $299,587
Total: $2.5 million
Total: $2.54 million
Mc Pherson $344,193
Total: $2.63 million
Total collections, 2009-2015: $12.3 million
Source: South Dakota Department of Revenue
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