Wind Power Wins Converts in Rural U.S.

Source: By Erin Ailworth, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Thursday, September 7, 2017

FOWLER, Ind. — BP PLC does big business harvesting energy in and around this farm town. But it’s not oil and gas — it’s wind.

Hundreds of wind turbines ring Fowler, their white towers rising for miles amid the golden-tipped cornfields and leafy soybean plants blanketing much of Benton County, pop. 8,650. More than half of the county’s 560 turbines are operated by BP, which has three wind farms here.

“Turbines as far as you can see,” said Ryan Linzner, who manages the BP wind farms.

Wind developers have made $17 million in payments to the county and have spent $33 million on roads, a boon for an economically struggling community that about a decade earlier considered hosting a waste dump to generate jobs and government revenue.

The wind farms took hundreds of construction workers to build, and created 110 permanent jobs, mostly wind technicians — in charge of servicing and maintaining wind turbines — who, according to federal data, earn about $51,500 a year in Indiana.

“Benton County didn’t see the recession until 2011,” said county commission president Bryan Berry, who has three turbines on his farmland. “The wind industry helped keep things open.”

As wind becomes a bigger part of the U.S. electricity mix, it is becoming an economic force in rural communities like Fowler, a development that is changing the political conversation around renewable energy in many parts of the country.

Wind supplied just over 6% of the country’s electricity last year, and the industry employed close to 102,000 people — nearly double the number working in coal mining, according to federal data.

President Donald Trump campaigned in part on reviving the U.S. coal industry, and has been critical of renewable-energy subsidies. But heavily Republican states such as Indiana, Iowa, Texas and Wyoming have embraced wind for the work and revenue it brings.

Nearly 90% of the wind capacity brought online in 2016 was in states that voted for President Donald Trump, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.

In the process, the industry has developed powerful allies, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who presided over a wind-turbine boom as governor of Texas, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee.

While some in Congress have argued against the federal subsidies wind energy receives, Mr. Grassley said that support helped build an industry that creates jobs and lowers the nation’s need for foreign oil.

“It helps us to be energy independent,” he said, adding that wind’s growing competitiveness with traditional energy sources has diminished the need for wind tax credits, which are being phased out.

Excluding subsidies, it now costs about $47 per megawatt hour to generate electricity from wind in North America over the full lifetime of a facility, compared with $63 for natural gas and $102 for coal, according to a 2016 analysis by Lazard Ltd.

Wind now produces more than 36% of Iowa’s electricity, nearly 7 gigawatts of capacity in all, second only to Texas’s 21 gigawatts. The falling price of wind power, along with its environmental benefits, helped persuade companies like Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to open data centers in the state, said Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“We use this wind portfolio, this renewable portfolio, as a calling card when we are talking to companies,” she said.

Indiana is an up-and-coming wind player with nearly 2 gigawatts of wind capacity. More than half that capacity is in Benton County, where there is roughly one turbine for every 15 residents. Turbines started sprouting in Benton a decade ago, a few years after a landfill project proved unpopular in 2004.

“When renewable energy came around, it was like, well, this isn’t even close to a dump,” said Benton County Economic Development Director Paul Jackson.

In addition to BP, which owns wind farms here with Dominion Energy Inc. and Sempra Energy, the area’s wind developers include Orion Energy Group LLC, Pattern Energy Group Inc., and the North American subsidiary of √Člectricit√© de France SA’s EDF √Čnergies Nouvelles. Electricity produced by Pattern’s farm is bought by Amazon Web Services Inc., a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc.

The wind boom has allowed Mike Kidwell, a Fowler native, to stop commuting about 35 miles to a Subaru plant in Lafayette, Ind., where he worked for 18 years.

He initially found a job in Fowler as a wind technician for Vestas Wind Systems AS, a Danish wind company, and is now vice president of operations at Auxilius Heavy Industries, a Fowler-based business that provides crews to service wind farms.

“I always said if I could find something that paid good at home, I would come back,” said Mr. Kidwell, 47. Three of his six children — sons Nick, Brandon, and Chris — work with him at Auxilius.

Some other counties are still debating whether wind is right for them, concerned that the turbines are unsightly and could spook lucrative residential development as suburbs sprawl from Lafayette and Indianapolis. But in Benton County, they are now a fact of life.

Farmer Bruce Buchanan, who has 14 turbines spinning amid his corn and soybean crops, said wind payments are helping him finance needed improvements such as fixing drainage issues.

His wife, Virginia, still hasn’t gotten used to the turbines, however, finding them unattractive and odd.

“They have them in California,” she said. “I never thought of us having them here.”

Write to Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com