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South Dakota farmers push to get wind farm propelled forward

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Wind is up for a vote in one South Dakota county next week. After a Lincoln County ordinance passed in May — requiring wind turbines to be at least a half mile from homes unless the energy company receives a waiver from the neighboring landowner — a coalition of farm and energy groups are pushing for a repeal.

The Farmers and Friends for Wind, a group including the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, South Dakota Soybean Association, South Dakota Farmers Union, Ag United, and South Dakota Farm Bureau, say the ordinance is blocking a 300-megawatt wind farm that has been proposed and agreed upon, with over 100 local farmers’ and landowners’ signatures. The supporters for Dakota Power Community Wind farm also say the ordinance would abandon millions of dollars in additional tax revenue that the farm would bring to the county.

“The revenue from a wind turbine is significant. This can be an annual revenue source that is not weather or market dependent,” said Brian Minish, CEO of Val-Add Service Corporation and Dakota Power Community Wind. “Farming is a risky business and to have an annual revenue that is assured can add a lot to a farming operation.  With the new technology used in planting today, it becomes much easier to farm around a wind turbine and the access roads can actually be helpful for the farmer during harvest for truck access.”

South Dakota ranks 19th in the nation in wind generation, despite being ranked 5th in potential wind capacity. The state is currently home to 583 wind turbines, generating 977 megawatts of electricity  – enough to power 293,000 homes. Minish said this translates to an investment of $2.1 billion with annual least payments to landowners near $5 million.

Because of its low population and lack of population density, South Dakota has few transmission lines to move power around the state. Minish said this transmission constriction has discouraged wind energy developers from making a major push in the state, and they’ve gone elsewhere. Iowa hosts 3,965 turbines ($13.5 billion investment), Minnesota 2,327 ($6.8B), and North Dakota has 1,536 ($5.4B)

In 2008 the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission issued a model Wind Energy Conversion System ordinance setback of 1,000 feet (approx. 2.4 X the total height of a tower) from currently occupied residences, businesses, and public buildings. In 2009 Lincoln County revised their ordinance to 3X or 1,272-foot setback, 12 percent more than state recommendation. The 2017 revision is now asking for 2,640 feet — almost nine football fields and another 52 percent increase.

How does the Lincoln County ordinance compare with the nation? According to Minish, the most common setback in the U.S. is 1.5X height (636 feet). Less than five percent of all WECS ordinances in the country are more restrictive than Lincoln County’s previous of 1,272.

Despite transmission lines and county ordinances, Minish said the largest opposition to wind energy has come from very small, vocal groups.

“In the past two years the biggest roadblock has been the sprouting of small but very loud NIMBY anti-wind groups,” Minish said. “They often cite studies from less-reputable sources including those from fossil-fuel funded think tanks. Their so-called experts often mislead and misinterpret factual studies and twist them to fit an anti-wind narrative.”

The Lincoln County ordinance was supported by a group called We-Care SD whose primary concerns are that the project will drive property values down and cause health problems.

So how does wind energy respond to these continued complaints?

Threat to wildlife

According to Rob Johnson, a developer with Dakota Power Community Wind, mainstream conservation organizations such as the National Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation support developing wind energy because of the role it plays in mitigating climate change.

“The U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the S.D. Department of Natural Resources work closely to develop project-specific conservation and mitigation plans to protect wildlife,” Johnson said. “Wind turbines are not in the top ten bird-killer — cats, followed by building, cars, and cell/radio towers lead the list.”

Visual pollution

Johnson said this depends on the eye of the beholder. Some people find them beautiful, others not.

“People were up in arms 80 years ago when powerlines began blighting the landscape,” Johnson said. “Does anyone even notice them now?”

Noise pollution

Johnson pointed out that scientific peer-reviewed studies show there is no link between wind turbines and health and safety. These reputable entities include Masschusetts Institute of Technology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Connecticut, Minnesota Department of Health, Massachusetts Department of Health, Oregon Department of Health, Health Canada, and more.

The National Health & Medicine Research Council (medical research arm of the Australian Government) after studying 4000 pieces of evidence stated: “There is no direct link between health effects and wind turbines, including pathological anxiety, depression, changes in blood pressure, heart disease and ringing in the ears.”

“The World Health Organization, contrary to popular myth, has never directly studied wind farms,” Johnson said. “The only noise studies they have performed applied to aggregations of more than 100,000 inhabitants and major roads with more than 3 million vehicles per year.”

Safety

Johnson referenced a UK study that found between 1995 and 2015, there were 210 wind turbine fires recorded worldwide. There is no record of fatalities and only four recorded injuries.

“Considering there are 350,000 turbines worldwide, the actual likelihood of a fire is .0006 percent,” Johnson said.

When it comes to the vote on July 18, both Minish and Johnson hope the public keeps in mind that the wind industry is a job creator and a tax generator.

“Each wind farm will require operations and maintenance staffing. These are permanent, well paying, jobs, that require training that two of the state technical schools offer programs for,” Johnson said. “The construction of a wind farm will bring several hundred workers to an area for many months.  These workers will require lodging, meals, and entertainment which is a boom to the local communities.”

“The state has structured a two- pronged tax structure that creates revenues for the state, county, township, and school districts,” Minish said. “The taxes are based on production of wind and the nameplate capacity of a wind farm.  This industry could provide tens of millions of dollars annually in new revenues.”

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