Wind energy development: Civil engagement and decision-making strategies
The wind energy market is one of the fastest growing sources of renewable energy in the United States. However, because of this fast growth, the comprehensive impact of wind turbine development on rural communities is complex and unmapped.
In response to concerns raised by Missourians about local wind energy development, the University of Missouri has developed a basic resource to help communities evaluate and prepare for wind energy development proposals.
In partnership with MU Extension, students, faculty and leaders from eight schools and departments across campus developed this information. In northwest Missouri communities with commercial wind energy developments, graduate students from the MU Trulaske College of Business conducted:
- onsite interviews
- an online survey
The information they gathered and additional research point to initial best practices that communities, governmental entities and individuals can use to weigh local wind energy development options, including:
- Key decision point considerations
- A community engagement checklist
The above image summarizes the detailed content below.
These resources are summarized from a 2018 report, "Wind Energy: Civic Engagement Strategies for Rural Communities," researched and prepared by Trulaske College of Business MBA students.
Is my community a good fit for wind energy?
This decision-making framework is not a substitute for on-the-ground engagement, nor does it comprehensively address the many issues surrounding wind energy development, i.e. technical, social, environmental, legal and more. Rather, the information can serve as a starting point to encourage further research and thinking that will help local communities work through whether such development is welcome and/or a good fit, as well as any desired development parameters.
Key decision point considerations
Economic orientation and population density
A community's population density and economic orientation often go hand-in-hand and are key determinants of how wind energy projects will be received.
Wind energy may be a more natural fit in communities with sparser population densities and agriculturally driven economies. If something other than farming — such as tourism or retirement living — is the primary driver of the local economy, wind energy projects are generally not recommended. Further, a rural area should ensure that it has the open space and wind conditions necessary for a successful project.
Zoning and property size
Local governments in Missouri have nearly total authority over wind energy developments within their jurisdictions.
As such, communities’ zoning policies should reflect objectives for their economic future. Zoning policies, ordinances and laws — or the lack thereof — can encourage, deter or set parameters on wind development. For example, local governments can set ordinances and broker agreements over standoff distance (from turbine to nearest house), structure heights, noise levels and use of and maintenance of public roads and infrastructure during and after construction to make their regions more or less attractive to wind turbine developers.
Strategic wind development planning is affected by whether a rural area is represented by a county government or a collection of township governments.
Agreement on zoning and other wind energy development-related requirements can easily become disjointed and ineffective if townships within a tight geographic area do not cooperate during the planning process. Wind energy projects are likely to be more successful in rural areas with a low population density overseen by a single county government.
Community engagement checklist
Wind energy development is most successful when decisions are made on the community level. Proactive planning and transparent conversations within potentially affected communities are key, whether organized by local government, wind energy development or local landowner interests. Ideally, these conversations occur before a wind energy company proposes a project or contracts with individual landowners. Throughout the process, communities should use relevant tools to craft consistent policies and practices that best serve overall community interests and needs.
Transparency is key
Open planning and decision-making ahead of time preserve community trust in local government and prospective wind energy developers. This increases the likelihood that potential wind energy projects will be well-received among neighbors. However, wind developers sometimes scout rural areas and offer contracts to individual landowners before local governments or communities know the area is a candidate for such projects. Try to get a sense of whether community members would be open to wind development before offers are on the table and decisions are already made. Wind energy development is most successful when the decision to welcome it (or not) is made on the community level.
- Ask questions and listen. Create opportunities for community members to learn about wind energy development, ask questions and voice their opinions. Conduct surveys and hold open forums.
- Expand public awareness and reach. Engage local news media and have a presence at local gathering places. Proactively facilitating a dialogue builds trust and ensures community members are involved in the decision-making, increasing the likelihood of decisions that respect the wants and needs of the community as a whole.
Establish appropriate zoning policies, other related ordinances
Local governments can formalize community preferences through documentation, ordinances and brokered agreements over such issues as standoff distance (from turbine to nearest house), structure heights, noise levels and use of and maintenance of public roads and infrastructure during and after construction to make their regions more or less attractive to wind energy developers. Zoning policies largely determine an area’s suitability for this development. They are also the most powerful tool to attract, deter or create limits around wind energy development.
- To attract wind development: Loose zoning laws may signal to wind energy developers that your county could be a good candidate.
- To discourage or limit wind development: Strict zoning laws may signal that placing turbines in your community involves more challenging requirements.
Involve the community
Once you’ve answered the question Is our community a good fit for wind energy? then it’s time to determine Is this wind developer right for our community? Without strong communication among community members, government and wind development companies, projects can become contentious. When communication is open and development companies are transparent, the trust and support of the community is easier to earn. Maintain a productive dialogue before, during and after turbine construction.
- Local liaisons Consider designating local residents to be liaisons between the wind energy company and community. You can also hire one or two local people (perhaps with real estate experience) to walk community members through the process of signing leases with the wind company.
- Frequent public hearings. Both government and wind company officials should be highly visible in the community, especially during the decision-making process and construction period. Give community members ample opportunity to ask questions, learn about the proposed project and build a relationship with the company.
- Set expectations. The construction period will likely bring challenges that your community will need to cope with for several months. Communicate frankly about the noise, road damage and other changes residents should expect.
- Neighbor relationships. Encourage community members to talk with their neighbors about wind turbines. Because the turbines on one person's property are visible from their neighbor's property, it's a good idea to promote neighbor-to-neighbor conversations about them.
Research the company
Wind energy companies have different land-leasing strategies. Often landowners sign leases before final wind turbine site locations are determined. Once project plans are solidified, some companies will only pay those who have turbines placed on their property, while others will pay all landowners who signed contracts, regardless of final placement.
It is important to thoroughly research companies that approach your community with a proposed project as companies differ in their commitment to community needs, open communication and willingness to collaborate with local government.
- Do a thorough Internet search. Try to find local news stories from communities that have worked with, or are currently working with, the developer. How does the process seem to be going and how are community members responding to the proposal?
- Contact other wind energy counties. Reach out to counties that have worked with the wind energy company whose proposal you are evaluating and ask them about their experience. Would they recommend working with the company? What advice do they have for you?
- Get to know the company's representatives. Do they seem to care about bettering the community? Are they receptive to questions and concerns?
Explore tax abatements, e.g. Enhanced Enterprise Zones
Local governments in Missouri have tools to ensure that wind development companies are respectful of their communities and that wind projects will add value to the local economy. A rural area suited for wind projects can make itself more attractive to developers by offering incentives such as tax credits and property tax abatements through programs such as Enhanced Enterprise Zones. Government officials should estimate the long-term value created by wind projects via job creation and added property tax revenue.
Equipped with these estimates, communities should decide how much in the way of tax breaks and other incentives they are willing to offer in exchange for the remaining economic benefit.
- Tax abatements. As a community, decide how much the county is willing to offer wind developers in property tax abatements. How much in property taxes will the county waive in exchange for the remaining tax revenue and local jobs created?
- Local job creation. Many wind energy communities require that wind companies, in order to receive tax abatements, hire a certain number of local residents, both during the turbine construction period and for long-term maintenance of turbines. Decide whether your county will require developers to provide local jobs and, if so, how many.
- Construction period. To reap additional economic benefits, many counties require that workers and company representatives patronize local businesses while in the area. For example, construction workers can be required or strongly encouraged to stay in local motels, eat at local restaurants and visit local mechanics.
- Set boundaries. An Enhanced Enterprise Zone contract is also a place for your community to set boundaries. If community members want to restrict construction noise during the early morning hours, for example, that can be prohibited as part of the contract.
- Apply. The Missouri Department of Economic Development must approve your county's designation as an Enhanced Enterprise Zone. Applications are accepted year-round.
Tax revenue impact
Wind energy projects can bring in upwards of a million dollars in added property tax revenue each year. For rural communities, this influx can mean major improvements to infrastructure, schools and other public resources. How that money will be spent is an important question that should be answered during the project evaluation stage.
- Make a community wish list. Use revenues from wind energy projects to cross off big items on your community's wish list. What could you accomplish with these funds that would go undone otherwise?
- Give stakeholders a seat at the table. Where could these funds make the biggest difference? Does the fire department need new equipment? Do the schools need renovation?
- Long-term planning. How should the community prepare for when and if the project is eventually decommissioned and the revenue stream ends?