Wind tower

A turbine spins alone at the Buffalo Ridge II wind farm in Brookings County, South Dakota.

From the next big thing to one of the most controversial things in 35 years, wind energy has taken the mantle as the most talked about from of energy production in the Midwest. For better or for worse, wind turbines have moved in.

In March 1984, the Tri-State Neighbor’s first year, an article was published discussing how wind energy grown South Dakota. It quoted owners of Jacobs Wind Energy Systems of Tea, South Dakota, who installed 40-foot turbines that produced roughly 10-17 kilowatts of power. Today’s towers would dwarf those. In 2018, 324-foot turbines were installed in South Dakota, and they have the capacity to produce 2,300 kilowatts.

As of December 2018, South Dakota had 1,018 megawatts of wind power capacity online and running.

Another 200 megawatts of wind energy was under construction, and 673 more megawatts spread across dozens of sites are permitted for production. Another 103 megawatts are in limbo West River. Overall, 1,060 megawatts of wind turbine capacity are currently pending review by the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) with four more wind farm proposals ready to be submitted for review as of this spring.

With the meteoric rise in both capacity and size came public discussion on how wind turbines are affecting those around them. Opponents and proponents alike flock to public hearings to discuss new and old projects. After nearly 20 years working for or with the PUC, Gary Hanson, the board’s chairman, said the debate has never been hotter.

How we got here

The question of South Dakota’s rise in wind energy mirrors that of the rest of the country. Early on, after the Energy Policy Act of 1992, production tax credits – dubbed PTCs – enticed energy developers to invest in renewable energy sources like wind by granting them money for every kilowatt hour of power produced.

South Dakota wouldn’t enter the wind playing field until 2003, when then-Gov. Mike Rounds created a wind energy taskforce aimed at enticing developers to come into the state and create jobs, while giving farmers an extra bit of money via land payments for wind turbines.

Hanson, who served in the state senate, has been chairman for dozens of organizations and was elected twice as the mayor of Sioux Falls, was selected for Rounds’ wind development task force after just one year on the job as chairman in 2002. Under their leadership, South Dakota became a wind energy player.

“South Dakota was quite unattractive for those development projects,” Hanson said. “Gov. Rounds came in and we really overstepped our position to find out how to encourage wind energy.”

The state reduced taxes on wind turbines and property where turbines were built, and made deals to get developers to make a claim projects in the state. In exchange, developers made promises to bring in jobs, money, tax revenue and land payments to farmers. The first signs of trouble popped up with 2003’s first major project, Hanson said.

“(Wind companies) have a tendency to overstate their value to the state by saying it’s a $200 million project. But perhaps all of that equipment coming in was being shipped in from other states,” Hanson said.

Hanson and his team worked to fix that problem, as many wind projects post-2008 have stayed true to their proposed value using South Dakota companies and construction teams.

Wind turbines

Turbines spin at the Buffalo Ridge II wind farm in Brookings County, South Dakota.  

The first major development, the Highmore Wind Energy Project, set up 27 65-meter wind turbines with a total capacity of 40.5 megawatts. It got the ball rolling. Hanson said his office fielded thousands of calls and emails from both companies and producers looking for information on how to acquire, permit and build wind turbines in South Dakota.

In the early days, Hanson said he saw very little opposition to wind turbines.

The PUC heard some of its first big complaints over contracts between landowners and energy companies. The core issue then was that the contracts weren’t for building turbines, but to claim the land for future use. Others worried how transporting the heavy wind power equipment might destroy roads.

However, public opinion was still very much in favor of having wind in South Dakota. Hanson recalled that in one conversation he had, people weren’t saying “not in my backyard” but “please in my backyard.”

“Now, the concerns have really risen to the surface,” he said.

He pegs 2008 as the turning point. That’s the year tax credits were expanded to include construction costs for the turbines and construction took off. Around 140 megawatts of wind power came online in 2008. Over the next seven years, another 790 megawatts of capacity was built in South Dakota.

Even with current concerns, Hanson said he’s satisfied with the progress both wind energy and the PUC has made with wind energy. With the current capacity of 1,018 looking to be doubled over the next few years, Hanson said wind could power a majority of the state’s electrical needs within the next 10 years.

“That is huge for the state because, in peak demand, South Dakota uses about 2,500 megawatts of electricity,” he said.

South Dakota’s story is not unique. States like Iowa and Minnesota have both more turbines and more capacity than South Dakota, even with the large boom over the last several years.

The United States Department of Energy’s Wind Technology Office, the national overseers of research and development in the wind sector, attributed the rise in wind to the efficiency of the turbine.

Patrick Gilman, the program manager for the wind office, said that even if production credits phased out today, wind energy would still hover around 4 cents per kilowatt hour simply because of the massive scale of wind turbines.

The goal of the office overall is to bring the cost of wind down so that it won’t need subsidies, Gilman said.

Where we are today

After 15 years of continuous wind energy investment, South Dakotans have become restless in their fights for and against wind turbines. Dozens of grassroots organizations have come out to fight against misinformation from wind energy companies and an equal number of energy companies have come back to provide data on the impact turbines have had on the land.

Two grassroots fights in Iowa and South Dakota have taken center stage. One, led by Janna Swanson, president of the Coalition of Rural Property Rights in Iowa, and one led by Gregg Hubner, author of “Paradise Destroyed,” a book that looks at negative effects wind farms have had on the South Dakota prairie.

Swanson’s fight against wind came indirectly in 2015. Living in Clay County, Iowa, she was given notice that Clean Line Energy Partners intended to build a transmission line through her property. Gathering with her neighbors, she successfully fought the action. Because of this, she and her sister began investigating other cases similar to theirs are realized pushing back against the growing number of wind turbines was the right course.

“I never realized there was a problem and I just didn’t know about it,” Swanson said.

She said she began to realize that energy companies were taking advantage of farmers who weren’t carefully reading the contracts and intentionally misleading them during meetings.

“This is wrong. What they are doing here is wrong,” she said. “No one was against renewable energy and no one was against wind until they realized how it could impact them.”

The root of the issue for Swanson in Iowa is the incentives energy companies are given to build turbines. The money communities got for hosting wind projects was actually being routed to fix damage from installing the turbines, she said.

Buffalo Ridge wind

Nick Thiel, plant manager, and Josh Woodford, supervisor, pose in front of the main turbine display board at the Buffalo Ridge II site in Brookings County, South Dakota. From this board, they can see all active turbines and get detailed readouts of each component inside.

“Is that what we are going to do now? Just build stuff for private companies?” she said.

In addition to incentive concerns, Swanson said the statements from energy companies regarding how turbines have impacted the land have begun to falter as they have found cases where the soil surrounding the turbine has yet to recover nearly a decade after turbine installation. Those contracts don’t cover the damage that farmers have had to deal with, she said.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the experience, Swanson said, is the efforts to discredit her team as being anti-renewable energy.

“It’s like taking a solar panel and hitting you with it and yelling ‘Oh you don’t like renewable energy!?” she said. “That’s never what it was about.”

Hubner, who lives in Avon, South Dakota, was approached about wind turbines in 2010, but dismissed having them on his property. In 2012, he made plans to build his dream home but found out that a wind company had plans to build a wind farm surrounding his property.

After a four-year struggle, he penned “Paradise Destroyed” in an effort to express his concerns with the practices of the energy companies. The root of the issue for Hubner, is that wind turbines are not being setback from property lines. He has fought to change that.

“All of this could be fixed with proper, safe setbacks,” he said.

He advocates for towers to be built at least 2 miles from a residence. While he and Swanson have tried to educate fellow landowners, both agreed that they’ve seen that a lot of the property being leased to energy companies comes from absentee landowners, who have no stake in the fight for or against wind energy.

“The only thing they know is what somebody tells them,” Hubner said. “The more these things are built, the more problems they have.”

While organizations argue that energy companies mislead the public, those same energy companies have said they’ve conducted studies that suggest that the public is still in favor of wind energy and they are simply meeting market demand.

The Berkeley Lab conducted a study in 2018 that found that 8 percent of the people polled disliked wind turbines. The study contacted 1,705 randomly drawn people who lived within 5 miles of a wind turbine to use for their study. The Berkeley Lab is directly related to the U.S. Department of Energy but is operated by the University of California.

Paul Copleman, the communications director of Avangrid Renewables, said they model their wind farms after years of testing within the community to make sure there is demand for the turbines.

Avangrid, the third largest wind operator in the country, operates three wind farms in South Dakota – the largest of which is Buffalo Ridge 2 in Brookings County. The 105-turbine site was built in 2010, a year after Buffalo Ridge 1 in the same area.

Copleman, who said the company has never shied away from answering questions from the community, encourages landowners to be inquisitive.

“People are right to ask those questions on what building a wind farm means for their community. They need to understand what change that might mean,” he said.

The three main issues wind turbines create are shadow flicker, noise and view disruptions. Shadow flicker, caused by the spinning blades “dancing” in low light, has been known to cause headaches and nausea in some people. Noise issues depend on the person, and view disruptions are the most common complaint.

These three main issues, which Hubner and Swanson said the wind companies refuse to acknowledge, have also taken up a majority of the public comments with the PUC, Hanson said.

“A lot of people look at us as if we’re legislators,” Hanson said. “We can’t just dislike it and vote against it. We need evidence.”

Hanson said he’s saddened to know that many people believe the PUC to be against public interest, but said many decisions made nowadays are much closer than people may realize. Through his time on the board, Hanson has seen serious concerns over shadow flicker, sound and wildlife displacement come through, but none bigger than complaints over faulty contracts.

“There are legitimate concerns. Property rights and eminent domain have been adversely affected,” he said.

Over the last several years, Hanson said he has wanted to vote against several wind developments, but because of his role he has had to accept the evidence provided by the energy companies. In general, he said excitement over wind energy has come to a halt and every discussion has become tougher.

Folks like Hubner remain unconvinced that elected officials are doing their jobs.

“(Energy companies) seem to have so much influence over the officials so the developers write the setback laws,” he said.

“They don’t want to work with people, they want to be given the right to do that to people,” Swanson added.

The future of wind energy

Answering the “what next” in wind energy is fairly impossible according to Hanson, Copleman and Gilman.

Gilman and his team at the wind technology office are working on ways for wind farms to be more efficient. Currently, each turbine acts independently and selfishly, but hopes are to soon have programs in place to get them on the same page and work off of one another.

“We want to make sure future technology can maximize production from the whole plant,” Gilman said.

In addition to smarter technology, Gilman said taller technology is inevitable – which his office dubs “tall wind.” As turbines reach for the skies, they won’t have to worry about wind disruptions from various sources like trees, and they won’t impact birds in the same way.

Energy transmission is the biggest area of focus for the Department of Energy.

“How can we integrate an increasing amount of non-dispatchable energy that you can’t just turn on?” Gilman said.

That problem is solved by better and smarter transmission lines. In other improvements, Gilman said people can expect to see much taller turbines that are optimized to provide power when needed, rather than whenever the weather dictates.

For Copleman and Avangrid, they hope to continue to work with South Dakota on building new renewable energy sources.

“South Dakota has offered a lot of regulatory certainties,” he said. “That’s critical. We could sign a lease with a landowner and years later we are doing studies on how that wind farm connected with the land.”

Copleman said he doesn’t see an issue with building too many wind farms for several decades out and said Avangrid plans to support their sites for decades to come.

“The projects have to be placed carefully and the science has to be rigorous. We want them to be successful for 25-plus years,” he said.

While oversaturation and public opposition may threaten the future of wind in South Dakota, Hanson said the PUC’s main focus is on making sure the grid remains reliable with the added inputs.

He predicted that wind will flourish for another 10 to 20 years as the cost continues to drop. Even though he maintains his political affiliation with the Republican Party, he said he is confused on why fellow Republicans are against protecting the planet against climate change, and still believes renewable energy like wind could be a viable alternative to coal.

“Something has to take its place, and wind as well as solar will take that void,” he said.

As for Hubner and Swanson, they are both discouraged by the lack of education and effort being put forth by those who wind doesn’t directly impact. Swanson said on top of all of the legal, land and emotional issues wind turbines have created, she is most disappointed in the fact that local energy companies are proposing energy rate hikes despite the saying that energy costs are going down.

“Get educated. That’s the big thing. You just need to get educated,” Hubner said.

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.

Editor

Jager is a repoter for Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnsota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska.