November 14, 2016
Iowa, South Dakota

Farmers weigh land rights, revenue in wind tower debate

Janelle Atyeo, Tri-State Neighbor Reporter | November 13, 2016 |

Cattle at the Headley Ranch near the central South Dakota town of White Lake graze in the shadow of towering wind turbines.

They don’t seem bothered by having to share their grazing land, rancher Jim Headley said, and at a time when cattle prices are low, those pasture partners are a way to supplement his ranch income.

Headley runs a couple hundred stock cows and grows some crops. While cattle and grain prices rise and fall, the seven wind turbines across his property bring in a steady annual income of about $4,000 each.

“This kind of income is good now especially when cattle prices are less than half of what they were two years ago,” he said. “I don’t think anybody here would complain about it.”

Headley has heard all the complaints against wind energy, but he says they don’t check out.

When detractors say the whirring blades kill birds, he points to studies researchers carried out in his area that found 160 bird species thriving in the project’s footprint.

He was worried before the towers went up about what they would look like on the prairie landscape. It was a big change at first, but now the towers are a familiar sight.

“After they’re here a while, you don’t even see them,” he said.

Landowners in the southeastern corner of the state are at odds over a proposed wind project. Dakota Power Community Wind is backing a wind project that would be one of the largest in the state.

The Lincoln County Planning Commission adopted rules for wind towers last month, requiring they be built at least a mile from any residence with noise restricted to 35 decibels during the day and 30 at night.

The Lincoln County Commission is set to vote on the matter Nov. 22. Developers say that if the rules are upheld, it effectively will put an end to wind projects in Lincoln County.

Unlike with Headley’s wind turbine check, landowners in the Lincoln County footprint would get a small chunk of the revenue from power produced there. They’d be guaranteed at least $8,900 per year, according to Brian Minish of Lennox, S.D., who is a board member with Dakota Power Community Wind.

But a check from the wind power company is not worth it to Janna Swanson.

Her husband farms in northwestern Iowa on land that straddles Clay and Palo Alto counties.

She hears the alerts from the price tracker on her husband’s phone and knows they’re not numbers he’d like to see. Grain prices are low for a third successive year.

“I know people need the money,” she said.

But she contrasts a loss of income with essentially losing control over the land. Contracts with wind project developers involve an easement to build on private land, and it’s not something she and her husband take lightly. He started his operation with a young farmer loan in the farm crisis of the 1980s and worked hard to build his business from there, she said.

“Now the idea of giving someone control over his farm just about gives him a heart attack,” Swanson said.

She organized a group, Coalition for Rural Property Rights, that seeks to give rural landowners larger setbacks from wind towers. Swanson also encourages people to read contracts carefully.

Whereas some projects in the past have taken easements only on the acre of land where the wind tower sits, she said some companies today are taking an easement over a landowner’s entire property, no matter how much land the wind towers use.

“Every farmer that I’ve talked to … they do not want to lose control over their land,” Swanson said.

Under those easements, she worries that landowners who sign would need to get permission from the wind company before building anything on their land or allowing hunters on their property. The towers also would make it more difficult or impossible to spray fields by airplane.

“It’s dangerous and more expensive,” she said.

Texas leads the nation with the amount of wind power it produces, but Iowa holds a different record. Iowa is the first state to generate more than one-third of its electricity with wind power, according to a recently released report from the American Wind Energy Association.

“Iowa is blessed with tremendous renewable resources and is well positioned to continue drawing companies to Iowa who are seeking low energy costs,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said in a prepared statement following the announcement.

Iowa accounts for 3,100 megawatts of the 20,000 megawatts of wind projects currently being developed across the U.S.

In South Dakota, there was slightly less than 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity either up and running or under construction in 2015, and 25 percent of the state’s power was generated by wind.

“With the capabilities we have, we could easily do 40 percent by 2040,” said Angela Landeen, who is the executive director of the South Dakota Wind Energy Association.

South Dakota tends to have a stronger opposition than neighboring states do when it comes to building wind farms, Landeen said, and her group aims to change that sentiment. She said people in other states are stronger in voicing their demand for clean energy, and other states also offer sales tax breaks for wind power manufacturing companies while South Dakota does not.

Some states approve wind towers at a state level, while in South Dakota, rules are set locally. That leaves developers dealing with a variety of rules.

Minish said that Lincoln County already had some of the toughest restrictions in the state when Dakota Power Community Wind started looking to build there. The rules were strict but workable, he said, until local opposition convinced the planning board to approve the recent change.

Minish said he is hopeful that the county commission will ease the restrictions, but he worries about what it means for the future of wind development in the state.

“Who’s going to come into South Dakota when these local government bodies continually change their rules?” he said.

Landeen said it will be up to South Dakota citizens to change their outlook on wind power and demand more sources for renewable energy.

“If you can get citizens on board … that moves on to leadership at the statehouse,” she said.

As Swanson sees it, wind power is attractive to people in cities because they see tax revenue from it and don’t have to live near the towers. In rural areas, though, landowners are becoming more reluctant to allow towers on their land. She said many people have a vision of Iowa farmers lining up eager to get a wind tower on their land, but really there are relatively few Iowa farmers who have signed a contract. There are more than 88,000 farms in Iowa and about 3,200 wind towers, with some farms hosting more than one tower.

“That isn’t everybody signing up,” Swanson said.

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