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Wind farms can be welcome assets in the right communities, researcher says

Wind farms can't be successful just anywhere there is a strong breeze. On the other hand, they don't have to face bitter opposition any time they are proposed.

It just takes the right type of community to welcome the technology, says Jacob Sowers, a doctoral student in geography at Kansas State University.

Sowers has studied communities that have supported wind turbines built in their area, and has found a few factors that separate towns and people who welcome the idea, versus those who fight the construction.

At the local level, opposition is nearly always rampant when a wind farm is proposed. Residents often don't want the structures in their area, or "not in my backyard." Opposition to wind farms can be seen in Cape Cod, Mass., suburban Wisconsin, Washington state, coastal California and even in the Kansas Flint Hills, for example.

But there are areas where "not in my backyard" -- or NIMBY -- changes to PIMBY -- "please in my backyard." Through Sowers' research, he found communities in northwestern Iowa, western Kansas, eastern Colorado, western Texas, eastern Wyoming and southwestern Minnesota that have embraced wind farms.

Sowers says communities that support wind farms are typically rural agricultural towns in the Midwest and the Great Plains. The wind turbines are usually built on farmland, some distance from the town. Farmers receive between $1,500 and $2,000 a year per turbine built on their land. Turbine construction also provides farmers with extra soil and improved field access roads.

But it isn't just the farmers who welcome the turbines.

"They don't necessarily care about green energy; they care about the local economy," he says of rural residents in favor of wind energy facilities. Farmers earn more income and tax revenue generated by the turbines goes to local schools and local road projects, for example.

A couple of factors do exist, however, separating favorable areas from unfavorable, Sowers says. Although rural agricultural communities may even find wind turbines in the distance to be a pretty sight, that doesn't go for areas considered scenic byways.

"You can't put wind turbines on locally important land," he says. Trying to do so is one thing that can give wind farms a bad name. Sowers said this concept explains the opposition to wind farms in the Flint Hills. Also, wind farm corporations should stay away from growing towns.

"You can't build a town under a wind turbine, but you can farm under one," Sowers said.

Sowers believes the future of wind energy is to expand it in favorable communities, rather than attempt to bring it to communities where citizens aren't receptive.

"The important thing for the industry is to spend more time understanding the people -- there isn't opposition to everything everywhere. It takes time to find out where something fits," Sowers says.

That can mean putting wind farms where they may not be the most profitable, but compared to facing staunch opposition, may be more worthwhile. Local opposition is one of the most significant factors holding back the expansion of wind energy, Sowers says.

Wind farms can't be successful just anywhere there is a strong breeze. On the other hand, they don't have to face bitter opposition any time they are proposed.

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