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FARMERS ARE NOT SMALL SCALE

A study aimed at assessing Midwest farmers' interest in wind energy for economic development includes a survey of 435 farmers in western Minnesota and South Dakota. The report concludes that wind energy is "almost unanimously supported" by rural residents who also believe such developments would be good for rural economic development and the environment. The study also showed that 75% would consider joining co-operatives to build and own a wind farm.

The potential for rural development of wind energy is emerging as a key benefit for the fledgling market of the north central US, according to a study by The Minnesota Project, a non profit organisation working to strengthen rural communities. The study, Harvesting the Wind: An Assessment of Farmer Interest in Wind Energy for Economic Development, includes a survey of 435 farmers in western Minnesota and South Dakota for their attitudes on wind energy development in their area. The study is part of the Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (SEED) initiative to promote renewable energy development in the region.

Lola Shoenrich of the Minnesota Project says that 35% of farmers responded to the study, which also includes a focus group of farmers, community meetings and interviews with rural community leaders. The report's authors conclude that wind energy is "almost unanimously supported" by rural residents who also believe such developments would be good for rural economic development and the environment.

Survey respondents are also widely supportive of different development sizes, with Minnesota farmers more supportive of large scale developments than farmers in the Dakotas. Shoenrich believes this might be attributed to the fact that farmers in Minnesota have already seen large scale wind development with the project of Kenetech machines by Northern States Power and are comfortable with the concept.

The study identifies a large interest among farmers for a stake in the ownership of any wind farms with 75%, saying they would consider joining co-operatives to build and own a wind farm. Farmers believe there are potentially significant benefits from wind farm ownership, including income from power sales and local control. About half of the respondents believe local control was important while farmers also perceived benefits "on the farm" where clean electricity would power farm machinery.

Respondents do not believe environmental impacts, including visual impacts, were barriers to further development. Lack of capital and information, however, were found to be barriers to rural residents considering wind energy. Despite this, some 41% say they are well informed of wind energy developments, while 29% say they are moderately informed.

Shoenrich also says that the common urban perception that "farmer owned" equates to small scale does not match current farmer co-operatives where multi million investments are made in such facilities as ethanol plants and biomass to electricity power plants. However, she adds, more research is needed on co-operative models, including those found in Europe, to ensure farmers had control and "not some insurance company."

Rural electricity co-operatives, she says, already exist, so many rural residents questioned why another one would be needed. Current electric coops, however, are not "jumping up and down with glee about wind development," she adds. "But they are saying, if this is what our members want this is what we will do."

Pointing out that Minnesota utility Northern States Power (NSP) is committed to installing 425 MW by 2002, Shoenrich says: "The idea behind the study was that Minnesota could become the Saudi Arabia of wind, so how do we promote that in a way that benefits everyone." With NSP forging ahead with wind development, farmers have been busy coping with requests for land leases. "One day the highly erodable farmland is part of conservation reserve programme -- and the next day the wind guys show up," she says, adding that wind merchants have been insisting land owners take one time up front payment of $450 an acre for perpetual wind rights. "Maybe it seems like a good deal," she continues, "but we learned that this type of leasing currently being offered by utilities is the least preferred by rural residents."

The study recommends more research on development and ownership issues. These include a utility's right to compulsorily purchase land for the public good and models for rural co-operatives.

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