Iowa Town reaps windfall from turbines

Source: Erin Golden • Posted: Monday, November 21, 2011

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 The 193-turbine Rolling Hills wind farm in Adair, Adams and Cass Counties is the largest such project in Iowa. An influx of workers has boosted the local economy, and landowners with turbines expect to see their incomes go up by tens of thousands of dollars.

When the wind is blowing and the giant blades are rotating, it’s almost hard to pinpoint how close they are, how big they are against the backdrop of green and brown fields dotted with cattle. Some people will tell you that looking at the wind turbines — part of MidAmerican Energy’s Rolling Hills wind project, the largest-ever such project in Iowa — is almost peaceful. Others think they’ve scarred the landscape and are noisy. Just about everyone in this community of about 350 people has an opinion.

But as the workers put the finishing touches on the project, nearly everybody here seems to agree on one thing: these turbines — and the people who built them — are changing more than the horizon in Massena.

Since work began in May on the 193-turbine, 444-megawatt project, hundreds of workers — at one point their numbers matched the population of Massena — have poured into the area, causing a surge in sales at the town’s convenience store, grocery store and restaurant.

As in other Iowa and Nebraska communities that have become home to wind farms, this project will have a wide reach.

Property owners with turbines on their land are poised to see their incomes go up by tens of thousands of dollars. The town itself could see a significant jump in population, thanks to the workers and their families who stay after the project is fully operational. Higher property tax rolls could mean money for upgrades at the local school district.

“If you looked at Massena this year, and that’s all you looked at in the U.S. economy, you would think the times were booming in America,” said Mike Cormack, the mayor of Massena.

Word started getting out about the turbines long before MidAmerican moved into an office downtown.

More than a few wind turbines had gone up in nearby counties over the past several years, and people in Massena — about 75 miles east of Omaha — figured it was only a matter of time before they got some of their own.

MidAmerican had begun thinking about building in an area that cuts across Adair, Adams and Cass Counties in 2008, said Tom Budler, the company’s general manager of wind generation. After surveying for the best spots —the ones with plenty of wind and good access for construction crews and transmission lines — MidAmerican scheduled community meetings and sent letters to farmers and property owners.

For some it was an easy sell: an opportunity to make thousands of dollars each year. MidAmerican doesn’t share information on how much it pays property owners, but one said the going rate was $3,000 per megawatt. With each turbine producing 2.3 megawatts, that’s $6,900 per turbine per year — plus a 2 percent rate increase each year.

Wendell Muller, a farmer who lives about a mile north of Massena, said he figured it didn’t make sense to pass on the project. Anyone who did, he said, was likely to have neighbors who felt differently — so in the end, it would be a matter of looking out the window at a turbine on one side of the fence or the other.

MidAmerican built six turbines on Muller’s property.

“It’s kind of a pain to farm around the fences and the roads, but, heck: I’ve farmed around wet spots my whole life,” he said. “But I’ve never had a wet spot pay me money.”

Others, however, hesitated.

Sure, they’d stand to profit, but they’d also have to turn over quite a bit of control. Landowners don’t get to decide — or have any input on — where the turbines go or how many will be on their property. Some worried about trucks and equipment tearing up their roads.

About a mile and a half south of Massena, Don Platt grows corn and soybeans and raises cattle on land he’s lived on his entire life. He got the notices in the mail and went to the town hall meetings, but still wasn’t sold.

After talking with his neighbors, he decided to take the risk. He ended up with five turbines and something else: the lay-down yard for the construction process, where workers stored trailers, generators, power washers and vehicles, and where they met each morning before work.

Platt wasn’t thrilled to have so much activity on his once-quiet patch of countryside, but he knew he’d made a deal.

Plus, he acknowledged, there was something exciting about being in the middle of everything, watching from his house as traffic jams formed on gravel roads.

“It’s going to be pretty boring when they’re gone,” he said.

Construction began in early May. By the middle of the summer, Massena was surrounded by wind turbines.

They went up fast. If you saw workers starting to put up a turbine on Monday, it probably would be finished on Tuesday.

Things looked different in other places, too.

Downtown, the shelves at the Economy Food Market seemed to be emptying more quickly than usual — particularly the ones holding beer and steaks.

Store manager Caren Greenwalt said sales were up by about 25 percent over the past several months, though she said it was likely a combination of traffic from the wind project and a switch to a co-op ownership.

At the nearby Main Street Bar & Grill, crews working on the wind project poured in to order the daily lunch specials: breaded pork loin, Polish sausage and kraut, ham. In a few months, business doubled.

Owner Jan Walton said she expected her sales to go up but had no idea how much.

“We were struggling, but thanks to them we were able to replace a cooler and a freezer and get new carpet,” she said.

The town’s lone convenience store, operated by the 21st Century Co-op, saw its busiest year ever — by a long shot.

Co-op General Manager Randy Daugherty said inside sales of food and other items were up by about $160,000 over the previous year. Instead of the store’s usual one transport load of fuel each week, it had to order three. To accommodate the workers, the opening time was pushed back from 6:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.

On a recent afternoon, Brenda Holste, the store manager, ran back and forth between the cash register and the kitchen, bringing out hot sandwiches and monitoring a regular stream of customers. Energy drinks and beef jerky are hot sellers.

“It’s just nuts,” she said. “But a good nuts.”

More than a few people around town said they knew of others who weren’t so fond of the project — even if it was bringing money into Massena and other neighboring towns. But the discontent seemed to be on an individual level; there was never any organized opposition.

Gary Dinkla, the board president for the CAM School District, which includes the town of Massena, said the split seems to be 75/25, with the larger group in favor of the turbines.

Change, he said, can be hard, especially in a place where people have lived on and farmed the same land for decades.

This is the kind of place where the bulletin board at the C-Store is covered with handwritten fliers for home businesses and baby shower announcements that ask everyone to attend.

With most of the work done, the crowds aren’t quite the same these days at the C-Store and the restaurant downtown.

But business owners and others in the community expect some of the change to stay, along with the 50 or 60 workers who will stick around to keep the turbines running. After about five years, that will be closer to 25 people.

Some of those workers might commute from nearby Iowa cities such as Atlantic or Corning, but some are likely to move to Massena. Local leaders like Cormack, the mayor, and Dinkla, the school board president, said they welcome the newcomers — but they worry that the town doesn’t have enough available housing. In recent weeks the City Council has been discussing the matter, and Cormack said one idea is to seek federal funding to rehabilitate Massena’s housing stock.

Meanwhile, the school district expects to see at least a slight bump in enrollment. But the larger impact is likely to be a significant bump in the area’s property values — a value on which taxes could be levied for building improvements or new equipment.

That’s been the case in communities that welcomed some of the state’s first large-scale wind farms.

In northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County, wind farms are the largest single class of contributor to the county’s assessed property tax, said Harold Prior, executive director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association. They account for 6.5 percent of the total taxable valuation.

Farther north — in Dickinson County, home to the Iowa Great Lakes — there are now 96 turbines, each worth about $3 million. Over the years, Prior said, the added tax value from the turbines will have a major impact on local government operations.

“We’re talking about literally billions of dollars,” he said.

In Iowa, where the total capacity of wind projects across the state now totals 4,375 megawatts, the wind industry accounted for between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs in 2010. Project owners paid $16.5 million in property taxes and landowners received about $11 million in lease payments, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Nebraska has 294 megawatts of wind power capacity online. In 2010, those projects helped support between 500 and 1,000 jobs and project owners paid approximately $1.1 million in property taxes. Landowners were paid more than $800,000.

A 2009 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that the expansion of the wind industry in Nebraska to 7,800 megawatts of capacity would support between 20,600 and 36,500 construction-period jobs by 2030.

In Massena, many of the full-time workers will be brought in from out of the area, because they have specific training and experience. Going forward, however, there might be opportunities for local workers to get involved, said Budler, of MidAmerican Energy.

Dinkla said he hopes that’s the case, particularly because it wouldn’t just be adding jobs, it would be adding well-paying jobs that attract talented people.

And others believe the turbines might be enough to keep the children of Massena from moving away.

“The kids are leaving the farm,” Muller said. “Now, when mom and dad die, maybe they won’t be in such a big hurry to sell the farm.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1543,