The Vertical Patterns of Wind Energy: The Effects of Wind Farm Ownership on Rural Communities in the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States

Jeffrey B Jacquet, Joshua T Fergen


North America has experienced rapid growth in the construction of utility-scale wind farms, with over 65,000 wind turbines constructed in the past 25 years. While wind farms are located almost exclusively in rural areas, ownership of the wind energy industry is largely a mix of multinational corporate energy conglomerates along with some smaller private energy firms. Despite the growth of the wind industry, little research has examined how the ownership structure of wind farms may affect host communities, even though research on other types of energy projects demonstrates local ownership tends to have more public support and positive benefits to the community. This exploratory research involves 36 in-depth interviews with leaders and residents in three case study communities located in the U.S. states of South Dakota and Minnesota: three communities impacted by wind farms variously owned by a regional electrical cooperative, municipalities, multinational corporations, and a local-resident group. The interviews describe the types of impacts perceived to have occurred in local communities, the role that wind farm ownership appears to play in shaping these impacts and reveal broader structural attributes of the U.S. wind industry. In doing so, this research describes the unique case of Community Wind North, a 12-turbine wind farm in southwestern Minnesota that is owned by 120 local member investors. Our findings from this exploratory research in wind farm host communities suggest that it is the local context of these rural communities that shapes the effects of wind farm development far more than if the wind farm is cooperatively, cooperatively, or municipally owned. We additionally employ Roland Warren’s concepts of vertical and horizontal patterns of community to contextualize our findings, with findings that suggest the structure of the wind industry contributes to the continued advancement of the vertical patterns or linkages between rural areas and metropolitan regions.

Keywords: wind energy; renewable energy; community development; Roland Warren

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The Journal of Rural and Community Development is supported by SSHRC.