WEST LAFAYETTE — Large-scale wind energy has been a fixture in parts of Indiana for more than a dozen years. Early projects focused in areas with favorable wind conditions.
A study completed by researchers at Purdue University last year has raised the prospect that with innovations in wind power technologies, it is economically viable for other areas of the state to host utility-scale wind farms.
"One of the key points is that the turbines are getting bigger," Russell Hillberry, associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University and a co-primary investigator on the study, said. "They can operate in places where they couldn't operate 10 years ago."
Two of the first counties to embrace the technology in Indiana were Benton and White. They were designed at a height of 80 meters (approximately 262 feet).
"Benton and White counties had the most suitable winds for the lower, earlier technology," Hillberry said. "But, as you go up higher into the atmosphere the advantage of Benton and White counties becomes quite a bit smaller relative to other counties in Indiana."
Perspectives on the issue of wind turbines in Indiana have also changed over the years. Back in 2008 as the first projects in Benton and White counties came into fruition there was a lot of talk surrounding government subsidies to help attract investment from wind energy companies. There were also questions about whether such projects would be profitable, Hillberry said.
"Now, there's a better understanding that these are economically viable," Hillberry said. "They don't need such huge subsidies, maybe they don't even need subsidies at all to be profitable. All they need is an 'OK' from the county governments."
How extensive is wind power?
According to a profile of wind power in Indiana compiled by the American Wind Energy Association, Indiana has a capacity of 2,400 megawatt-hours of wind-generated power. With more than 1,000 turbines in operation, they combine to produce $12 million in annual state and local tax payments in addition to $20 million in annual land lease payments.
In addition, 6% of all in-state electricity production now comes from wind energy, according to the AWEA and the Purdue study. Hillberry said the 6% number in 2019 represents an increase from around 4% the year prior.
In a different report prepared last year by the AWEA, wind power grew by 9.1 gigawatts in 2019 making wind power the largest provider of renewable energy in the country, supplying over 7 percent of the nation's electricity.
"U.S. wind power has grown significantly over the past decade, as consumers across the country increasingly turn to wind to provide affordable, reliable, and clean electricity for their communities," Tom Kiernan, CEO of the American Wind Energy Association, said in the report. "Years of hard work culminated with wind power becoming America's largest renewable energy provider in 2019, with a 50-state footprint of job creation and economic development. Wind's near-record project pipeline indicates this growth will continue for years to come."
As the technology improves and turbines grow over 100 meters in height, thus accessing steadier winds at the higher altitudes, there will be more opportunities for the industry to expand.
Projects in Indiana, thus far, have largely been confined to the northern two-thirds of the state because of their access to the electric grid and the wind profile, Hillberry said.
"Projecting the technology forward, the turbines are going to get even taller, will be viable across much of the eastern U.S.," Hillberry said. "The main issue now is will people accept them to be near them. This is an issue where I think county policies are kind of running against the grain of sort of federal and state policies which want to see more turbines for various reasons. At least in Indiana, the counties have the decision-making authority so that's why we haven't seen even more wind power in Indiana recently."
Barriers to growth
Part of the reason there hasn't been faster growth in wind energy, in addition to the wind profiles of various parts of the state, is that people were reluctant to have the large turbines near their homes.
Noise levels are not very high, but it is persistent when it is windy, Hillberry said. There are also shadows that move across the landscape as the turbines spin, which has led nearby properties to proposed developments to be the most opposed, he said.
"I think the costs are mainly that people don't want the turbines near them, you know, in their visual sight usually," Hillberry said. "The benefits might not all be obvious to people."
Those concerns prompted the industry to make an adjustment, Hillberry said. When wind energy was initially starting up in the state, the companies would pay the property owners to host the turbines on their land. With the recognition of the impact beyond those properties, the companies started making good neighbor payments to compensate others who live near the turbines.
"The noise levels are not very high but it is persistent. Sight seems to be main thing," Hillberry said. "Turbines go around and cause shadows to move across the landscape. Nearby properties are the most opposed."
Good neighbor approach
In addition to expanding payments beyond property owners who are hosting turbines, wind energy companies have also taken on other initiatives to help get projects off the ground. Hillberry said economic development agreement payments, road use and decommissioning agreements are all tools the companies have used in pursuit of new projects.
The various agreements are designed to make sure the counties are left harmless in the event a project is terminated.
The economic development agreements are additional payments beyond taxes that are typically made closer to the beginning of a project's life, Hillberry said. Road use agreements help specify which roads will be used to move heavy equipment, determining which roads will be left from construction and who will maintain them.
Decommissioning agreements ensure the turbines and other materials, such as concrete, are removed at the end of the project, regardless of unforeseen circumstances.
"It is quite a lot of money, especially in the more rural counties," Hillberry said. "In Benton County we calculated that it's almost $500 per resident per year."
Where does wind energy go from here?
Wind energy projects in parts of Indiana have had a sizeable impact in the decade-plus they have been in operation.
Hillberry said the impact is particularly evident in Benton and White counties as they've used revenues from their wind projects for targeted tax relief in the areas hosting the turbines as well as financial investments in schools and various other projects.
"There was opposition at the beginning but it seems there's fairly widespread community support at this point," Hillberry said. "I think it may be that people see the benefits."
Wind energy may also become an increasingly attractive option as counties grapple with lost income brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I would think this last year would have put a lot of pressure on county governments. A nice thing about the turbines is that they pay out sort of every year," Hillberry said. "The farmers appreciate that and the county governments probably would as well. It's not as sensitive to the conditions of the local economy or anything like that. It's kind of a steady revenue stream."
Hillberry said he views the challenge of siting new wind energy projects and convincing local and county governments to embrace them as an obstacle that can be overcome.
"I think it's really a question of how valuable is that funding compared to how much hostility is there going to be from the people who are living near the project. To me, that seems like a solvable problem."