Wind farms and the density question

If you were among that handful of people who spent seven hours Thursday watching our riveting live stream of the Goodhue County wind hearing at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, you noticed a few recurring themes. There was concern that stray voltage would harm livestock. Or that residents would lose sleep because of low-frequency sound from the turbines. The usual points of contention in a wind farm debate.

But several speakers, including state Rep. Tim Kelly, raised an interesting question: Maybe places like Goodhue County are just too densely populated to be appropriate sites for large-scale wind projects.

It’s a reasonable question – after all, wind farms in sparsely-populated areas like South Dakota and even western Minnesota and Iowa are rarely controversial. It stands to reason that the more people there are in the area, the more opposition you’re going to run into.

But let’s consider the case of another seven-letter county starting with “G”: Gratiot County, Michigan, which we highlighted in a story back in March. Like Goodhue County, Gratiot County is mostly rural, with an economy that is heavily dependent on agriculture. Both counties were selected for wind farms in part because they have existing transmission infrastructure to handle the loads. And neither state has clear siting guidelines for large turbines.

In Michigan, however, residents are welcoming the wind farm with open arms. I made reporter M. Lisa Weatherford make a bunch of extra phone calls to try to scare up some organized opposition to the wind farm. There simply wasn’t any. That’s not to say there weren’t people opposed, but there was no equivalent to groups like Goodhue Wind Truth, which turned out in force for yesterday’s hearing in Minnesota.

And yet Gratiot County, according to the U.S. Census, has a population density of 74.5 people per square mile, which, according to my calculations, is higher than Goodhue County’s density of 60.9 people per square mile.

So clearly, population density, while undoubtedly a factor, is not the main determinant of whether a wind farm will run into organized public opposition.

As a rule, most of the people testifying against the project said they weren’t necessarily opposed to wind farms, or even wind farms in Goodhue County. These were not ranting tinfoilers. There’s no reason to suspect that people in rural Minnesota have any greater propensity toward ideological opposition to renewable energy than people in rural Michigan.

One factor could be the economy. According to Fed data, the unemployment rate in Goodhue County is just shy of 6 percent, while in Gratiot County, it’s closer to 10 percent (and was as high as 15 percent late last year). It makes sense that the economic boost of lease payments and tax revenue would be a little more tantalizing in financially strapped Michigan.

But while Goodhue County residents and local officials repeatedly complained that the wind developers were unresponsive to their concerns, Gratiot County’s process was more collaborative:

Throughout the process, [wind developer Richard Vander Veen] said developers spoke with and listened to a broad range of people from Future Farmers of America to educators, local, state and federal officials, MSU Cooperative Extension, and the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“In a county where 92.5 percent of the land is zoned agricultural and there are only 42,000 people, we wanted to appreciate the culture and the community values,” he said. “In the end we are helping move the county forward in a progressive way to keep family farms in families.”

“We know that you don’t just get consensus, you have to earn it,” he added.

One of the conditions of the site permit issued by the PUC requires AWA Goodhue, the developers of the Minnesota project, to make a “good faith effort” to get more non-participating landowners on board. Attorneys for the developers insist they’ve done all they can to gain consent from residents, but the experience in Michigan makes one wonder if a lot of this controversy could have been avoided if the Minnesota developers had gone a little further out of their way to be more, well, neighborly.

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