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United States

Simmering discontent

According to Microsoft's Bill Gates, humanity's greatest advances are not in its discoveries but in how they are applied to reduce inequity -- and applying them successfully is the highest human achievement of all. Wind power is probably among humanity's great advances, but not everyone believes its benefits are shared equally. At this year's annual wind power show in America, a seething undercurrent of discontent bubbled up from advocates of locally owned, community-based wind power.

Almost unnoticed and mainly unheard in the din of multi-million dollar deals hatched in pricey trade show booths, these advocates lamented the increasing consolidation of the industry into a group of corporate heavyweight developers locking up all available turbines and buying up large tracts of land all over the country. It was even questioned whether advocates for community wind have a place anymore within the American Wind Energy Association (page 56).

The discontent is largely represented by Minnesotan community wind advocacy group Windustry. "It's not a question of wind in Minnesota, but of what flavour," is the way one developer sums it up. Local ownership usually means a higher rate of return to members of the community than can be gained from commercial developments. But the typical citizen seldom has the necessary capital to lock up either hardware or real estate way into the future. As a result they feel they are being squeezed out. Nor do they have big tax bills allowing them to make use of wind's federal production tax credit. Wind power development in the US today is for big time companies and big time investors with tax bills in need of offsetting.

Community wind's collective discontent is not new. But it is getting worse. Thanks to concerted lobbying by Windustry, Minnesota has a new law that advocates of big wind say could stop at least some, if not all, major projects. The law requires land lease options for wind development to be renegotiated after seven years if no operating wind station has appeared. Its passing has sent a chill through a market expected to deliver over 6000 MW of new wind by 2020. The law's purpose is to keep wind developers from scooping up vast tracks of land into the indefinite future. Major land grabs are not uncommon in Minnesota, Iowa and especially Texas, where speculative leasing of land for possible transmission wires is rampant. Greenfield wind development is, at its core, a real estate game.

In the mainstream wind industry, nobody is arguing that land lease options should exist in perpetuity. But seven years, say veteran developers, leaves too short a time frame to plan, permit, finance, construct and grid-connect big wind power stations. With the interconnection queue backed up for years in Minnesota, commercial projects inking land leases today may not squeeze through the window. The prospect of re-negotiating for the land after spending thousands of dollars constitutes greatly increased risk that many may not be willing to take. The law could indeed prove disastrous over time, though more likely it will be amended before Minnesota wind power came to a grinding halt. But it lies at the heart of a vexing question: does community wind development, lacking big wind's efficiencies of scale, have enough value for it to be worth salvaging? At least two strong arguments suggest the answer is yes.

First, while transmission capacity for big wind is increasingly in short supply, there are thousands of miles of distribution wires across America with capacity enough for additions of small groups of turbines. These projects are generally too small to be of commercial interest, so a huge potential resource would go to waste were they not small enough to fit within the community wind power model, given a little financial help. Second, Bill Gates has a point. People are far more likely to welcome wind turbines as neighbours if they actively share in the benefits. Owning a wind turbine means knowing what your electricity will cost for the next 20 years and an end to ever-rising utility bills. It also brings far greater understanding of the technology than straightforward financial contributions to community funds from big wind farm earnings.

Facilitating a solution

Ironically, it was a member of big wind that reminded conference delegates last month that the industry has yet to win over the public as to why wind power is worth their support. "I think one of our priorities is to make the case to the American public, so this is a demand-driven growth rather than a policy-driven growth in this next wave," said BP's Bob Lukefahr. As experience in Europe has demonstrated, facilitating community wind power is a great way of gaining public support.

But it will not happen on its own. Specific policies are needed. Minnesota has its Community Based Energy Development initiative. Or states could pass net metering laws to allow people to offset electricity consumption with their own wind production; the cost of linking to the distribution net could be spread across the rate base. Or, as Ontario has done, premium prices could be paid for electricity from small wind plant connected at the level of the distribution grid. Whatever the policy, big wind's acceptance of community wind is essential to bring it back to the table, so that wind's benefits can be shared in an equitable way and the public support needed for wind to reach its potential is fostered.

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