Commentary: A rural community takes into account the complexities of wind power

Residents of Murray County, Minnesota enjoy a small town atmosphere, knowing the people wherever they go, peace and quiet, and a strong sense of community. Murray, with an estimated population of 8,300, is a primarily agricultural county in southwestern Minnesota. As you drive through the meadow, you can see agricultural fields stretching out on the horizon. The landscape has changed over the past 20 years, however. Today Murray County has 255 wind turbines dotting the skyline. Feelings about expanding wind power generation vary, and most people approach the subject with mixed feelings.

It is in this context that the Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center hosted the Murray County Energy Dialogue from February 20 to 22. For two and a half days, 18 randomly selected and demographically balanced residents gathered in downtown Slayton, the county seat, to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on how they would like to see their county approach future development. wind power. People in the room came from a variety of backgrounds, but most were related to agriculture in one way or another, and several attendees have already housed turbines on their land. Everyone was hopeful for the future of their community and eager to create a place where people wanted to live, work and play.

The Murray County Energy Dialogue is part of the largest Rural climate dialogues (RCD), which facilitated community problem solving and leadership development in rural Minnesota communities on the themes of climate change, community resilience, and energy. RCDs use the Citizens’ jury method, which brings together a microcosm of the community to study an issue in depth and generate a shared community response. These events have always provided a productive, educational and inclusive way to address complex and divisive challenges.

When it comes to contentious issues, forms of engagement are often insufficient to foster respectful conversation and bridge ideological divides. It is imperative that community members are at the forefront of conversations about issues that will directly affect them. Wind power development can only be fair and equitable if the communities that host it believe in the benefits, and the RCDs, including the recent event in Murray County, work to identify the challenges and to maximize the benefits to the community.

The Murray County Energy Dialogue featured four presentations as a basis for discussion. A local energy-focused non-profit organization provided information on market conditions, why an energy transformation is happening and how the development process is unfolding. Murray County’s auditor and zoning administrator spoke about the county’s budget and decision-making process, including decisions regarding energy development. A Murray County commissioner spoke about the economics of wind development for the county and for landowners. Finally, a wind energy developer gave his perspective on regulations and location considerations such as wind resources, grid capacity, environmental studies and impacts on surrounding residences.

In addition to these presentations, participants’ first-hand experience with wind power development informed their conversations. Murray County has hosted wind projects for over 20 years and residents understand both the pros and cons. This realization lent itself to a nuanced discussion, which participants were keen to hear from people outside their community. One participant noted: “Wind turbines are great, but not everything is rosy. I want people in the cities to know that while the wind is good, there are also issues with it. “

Another participant, a farmer who hosts four turbines on his land, shared a recording from his porch. The pastoral landscape was dotted with turbines and there was an audible soundtrack of hissing and clicking. He’s gotten used to the noise over the years, he said, but maybe not everyone is so willing.

The feeling of “getting used to” repeated throughout the two and a half days. One participant noted, “After a few years, you probably don’t think about those windmills on your horizon. But when it’s new, it’s a change, and no one likes to see its landscape change in appearance. In rural areas such as Murray County, residents are most affected by this change in landscape to the benefit of energy users across the country. Participants noted this tension; their landscape was changing, but the energy resulting from that change was carried away to cities with higher energy demands. For this reason, participants said that communities should be heavily involved in the development process and should retain the local benefits that make the change of landscape worth it.

Some benefits can be financial. Participants noted that the roads in their county were significantly better than those in surrounding counties. They acknowledged that this was largely due to wind power production tax money which in 2019 provided $ 1.2 million to the county budget, none of which came out of the pocket of local taxpayers. And for farmers who house a turbine on their land, paying the rental can be a game-changer, especially in today’s declining farming economy.

Participants also thought beyond their own well-being. One person noted, “We should be thinking about our grandchildren and how green energy could be better for the future. This concern for the environment and future generations has been mentioned several times and linked to another feeling: the responsibility to set an example for the rest of the world to show how renewable energies can move us towards a healthier planet .

In their final report, the Murray County Energy Dialogue participants concluded: “There are clear benefits to developing wind power, but also much more to learn. We hope to see increased wind development and believe it will be of an overall benefit to the community if we recognize our policy challenges and ensure that our permits reflect these considerations.

At the end of the event, attendees voted on the question “Based on what you have learned from this experience, do you think residents should support extended / future wind development efforts / projects in the area?” Murray County? Of the 18 participants, six said “Yes, in most circumstances / to the extent possible” and 12 responded: “Yes, but only if certain conditions are met. These conditions included appropriate setbacks, deep cleaning at the end of a turbine’s life, including locals in the development process, ensuring energy companies are transparent, protecting farmland, and ensuring that the Most of the income remains local.

The Murray County Energy Dialogue is the second and final in a series of two communities focused on wind development in the Rural Dialogues program. These events provide a unique opportunity for members of the Greater Minnesota community to share their voices on the future of local energy and to shape energy policy and action. At the end of the event, one attendee said, “I appreciated the respect here. We have recognized that while we see it differently, we all have the best interests of Murray County at heart. “

You can read more about the rural dialogues at www.iatp.org/rural-climate-dialogues.

Tara Ritter is a senior climate and rural communities program associate at the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, which helped organize the dialogue in Murray County.

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