“Wind energy, the fastest-growing source of electricity in the U.S., is transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the federal government gave land to homesteaders 150 years ago. As commodity prices threaten to reach decade lows and farmers struggle to meet debt payments, wind has saved family farms across a wide swath of the heartland.”
That’s what the Omaha World-Herald reported in late 2016. Based on the last two-plus years, their assessment was spot on, even more so than we might have imagined.
Wind energy growth has boomed in our state over the past several years — we’re one of seven states on track to double our installed wind capacity. In fact, no other state added new wind capacity at a faster rate in 2018, when our installed wind energy grew by 39 percent. Nebraska now generates 14 percent of its electricity using wind, and last year we produced enough wind-generated electricity to power half a million homes.
That new capital investment has created enormous benefits for our rural communities, particularly for farmers and ranchers. In 2018, lease payments to landowners hosting wind turbines on their property exceeded $5 million. That number will keep growing as we harvest more of our world class wind resources.
It’s no secret that agriculture is a high-risk, low- or no-margin business. Six years of sinking crop prices and increasing input costs is putting the squeeze on families that farm. Farmers’ production has a lot to do with the luck of weather, including drought, hail, early or late frosts and floods. Between crop prices and weather extremes, there is a lot of volatility in farming.
Fortunately, lease payments from wind turbines are immune to these cycles. They offer steady income families can count on each and every month, and this stability can make a huge difference during lean times when cash flows struggle. Every wind tower represents a part-time job for a farmer who needs extra income to keep their family farm going these days. It is a sad day for rural America when farms that represent generations of hard work and sweat and sacrifice are forced out of business.
Wind energy is also making our rural communities attractive for young people again. The trend of young people leaving our small towns never to return has become all too predictable. For communities with wind, however, that doesn’t have to be the case.
Wind technicians are in high demand as they’re needed to operate and maintain projects. In fact, wind technician is the country’s second fastest growing job according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the fastest growing job in Nebraska, according to Yahoo Finance.
Young people can learn those skills at Northeast Community College’s wind tech program and return to their hometowns with careers that help them support a family. That is why Nebraska Farmers Union was pleased to serve as an adviser for the development of that program.
Wind farms have invested more than $3 billion in rural Nebraska. That new tax base and local tax revenue helps keep the lights on in rural communities. The taxes they pay significantly increase local budgets, helping schools improve facilities and fund road repairs while lowering the property tax burden for farmers and ranchers. In 2018, alone wind added an estimated $8.5 million to Nebraska state and local taxes.
Finally, wind farms are meeting the growing market demand for clean energy while bringing new business to our state. Facebook, Smuckers and Vail Resorts all signed purchase agreements for Nebraska wind power just in the last year. In fact, wind energy was the reason Facebook decided to place its brand-new data center in Nebraska. That means new high-tech careers for our residents that didn’t exist before.
Anyone who’s spent some time in the Nebraska countryside knows we have wind in abundance. Today, with technologies as advanced as they are, we can use this powerful resource to produce energy as efficiently as we do food — it’s another profitable crop to harvest and an opportunity for rural revitalization.