Residents of Murray County, Minnesota value the small-town feel, knowing people wherever they go, peace and quiet, and a strong sense of community. Murray is a primarily agricultural county; as you drive through the prairie, you can see farm fields stretching to the horizon. The landscape has changed over the past 20 years, though. Today, Murray County has 255 wind turbines that dot the landscape. Sentiments about expanding wind energy production vary, and most people approach the topic with mixed feelings.
This is the context in which IATP and the Jefferson Center hosted the Murray County Energy Dialogue from February 20-22. For two and a half days, 18 randomly selected and demographically balanced residents gathered in downtown Slayton to learn, deliberate and make recommendations on how they’d like to see their county approach future wind development. The people in the room came from many walks of life but most were tied to farming in some way and several participants already hosted 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.
In their final statement, they said, “There are clear benefits to wind energy development, but also much more to learn. We hope to see expanded wind development and believe that it will be an overall benefit to the community if we acknowledge the challenges in our policy and ensure that our permitting reflects those considerations.”
Four presentations served as the foundation for discussion:
Heidi Winter and Jean Christoffels, the Murray County auditor and zoning administrator, spoke on the county’s budget and decision-making process, including decisions around energy development.
Dennis Welgraven, a Murray County commissioner, spoke on the economics of wind development, both for the county and for landowners.
Mark Lennox from NextEra Energy provided a developer’s perspective on the process, including regulations and siting considerations such as wind resource, grid capacity, environmental studies and impacts on surrounding residences.
Markets have shifted so that wind is the cheapest type of unsubsidized energy. This, in addition to climate change considerations, has led states and utilities to make commitments to shift electric generation to renewables. Xcel Energy, which serves much of Murray County, has committed to 100% carbon-free electric generation by 2050, and eight states have committed to meeting that same goal. This has caused a massive buildout of renewable energy. The Buffalo Ridge in Southwest Minnesota has one of the best wind resources in the country, putting Murray County at the center of this energy transition.
There are multiple entities involved in the development process. First, a developer must propose the project and secure leases with landowners. Then, the developer must apply for a land use permit from either the state or the county, depending on the project’s scale. The development proposal must also undergo studies of ecological impacts, how it will affect the grid and more. If the permit is granted, construction can begin.
Perhaps the largest benefit to the county is the wind energy production tax. Last year, Murray County received $1.2 million dollars. This money does not come out of the pocket of taxpayers and can close some gaps in the county’s operating budget. For farmers who host a turbine on their land, the lease payment can be a gamechanger, especially in today’s downturned farm economy.
However, economics are not the only consideration. Wind development fundamentally changes that landscape. One participant, a farmer who hosts four turbines on his land, shared a recording from his front porch. The pastoral landscape was dotted with turbines, and there was an audible soundtrack of whooshing and clanging. He’d gotten used to the noise over the years, he said, but not everyone might be so amenable.
There are avenues for community members to influence the development process. Residents can serve on county committees, attend public hearings and be in contact with their local elected officials. Public engagement is critical; county governments have a lot of power to determine how development happens locally. Even projects permitted by the state take county input into serious consideration.
Murray County residents are familiar with wind energy, having hosted projects for over 20 years. This awareness lent itself to nuanced discussion, which participants were eager for people outside their community to understand. One participant who hosted turbines on his land noted, “Wind turbines are great, but it’s not all roses. I want people in the cities to know that even though wind is ok, there are problems with it too.”
After ample discussion and debate, the 18 participants co-created a set of benefits and drawbacks for the county to consider when facing potential future wind development. Top benefits included:
Wind development provides cheaper, cleaner and safer energy that provides more disposable income for consumers.
Wind development provides an increase in all-around tax revenue for the county.
Wind development provides good-paying jobs that require additional training, increasing residents’ income and education for those who close careers in this field.
People would experience overall cleaner air nationwide.
Wind development grows a younger and larger workforce with more families moving into the community as a result of the influx of new jobs.
Top drawbacks included:
The long-term health effects of wind energy are unknown.
Concerns around the end-of-life cleanup process, waste, and cost from the decommissioned turbine parts and related infrastructure issues.
The uncertainty of cost and consequences of unforeseen events like decommissioning, legislative changes, new rules and regulations, etc.
The energy produced is not staying local — cost savings should be experienced close to where the energy is created.
Wind energy results in an increased need for road maintenance due to higher levels of industry-related traffic.
At the end of the event, participants voted on the question “Based on what you’ve learned through this experience, do you feel residents should support expanded/future wind development efforts/projects in Murray County?” Of the 18 participants, six said “yes, under most circumstances/whenever possible” and 12 said “yes, but only if certain conditions are met.” Those conditions included appropriate setbacks, thorough clean up at the end of a turbine’s life, including locals in the development process, making sure energy companies are transparent, protecting farmland and ensuring that most revenue stays local.
The full list of participant-identified benefits and drawbacks, along with their recommendations, can be viewed in the final report, available here.
The Murray County Energy Dialogue is the second and final of a two-community, wind development-focused series of the Rural Dialogues program. These events provide a unique opportunity for community members in Greater Minnesota to share their voice on the future of local energy and to shape energy policy and action. At the end of the event, one attendee reflected, “I enjoyed the respect here. We acknowledged that even though we see things in a different way, we all have the best interests of Murray County at heart.”
When it comes to contentious issues, there are often insufficient forms of engagement to foster respectful conversation and bridge ideological divides. It’s imperative that community members are front and center in conversations about issues that will impact them directly. Wind energy development can only be fair and equitable if the communities hosting it feel and believe in the benefits.