How an ‘energy traffic jam’ is disrupting investment in Minnesota’s Wind Belt
Mic VanDeVere stares at the horizon, pointing to hundreds of wind turbines that dot the landscape and fade into the distance near the South Dakota state line. Their blades spin rhythmically, at times syncing up and turning in unison in the cold and gusty wind that blows through Lincoln County on a bright April day.
“If you come through and you’ve never seen something like this before, it’s actually kind of amazing,” he said.
For more than two decades, wind farms have towered over the rolling hills of the Buffalo Ridge, a 60-mile stretch of land in southwestern Minnesota.
The area — dubbed by locals as the state’s “Wind Belt” — contributes a significant amount of renewable energy to Minnesota while generating millions of dollars in tax revenue for local communities.
The wind farms are also critical to achieving the state’s new energy standards. In February, Gov. Tim Walz signed the Clean Energy Bill, requiring that 100% of Minnesota’s electricity come from renewable energy sources by the year 2040.
But all of that power has nowhere to go.
“We’re having an energy traffic jam on the transmission lines,” said Molly Malone, a Murray County commissioner.
Transmission lines are like the highway system for electricity, carrying power hundreds of miles from where it’s produced to where it’s consumed.
Right now in Minnesota, those lines are full, which means even as demand for renewable energy increases, wind farms are unable to get the energy they produce out of the area.
As the state builds out its energy highway to meet the mandated deadlines, counties in the wind belt are feeling the financial impact of that bottleneck.
VanDeVere has watched renewable energy projects proliferate in Lincoln County, where he serves as a county commissioner.
To date, Lincoln County boasts more than 600 wind turbines, twice as many as any other county in the state.
“The sustainability to be able to produce electricity through this Buffalo Ridge area is the biggest draw,” VanDeVere said.
The wind farms also create a significant windfall. The counties and townships generate revenue through the Wind Energy Production Tax. The funding is tied to the power generated by the wind towers.
While the revenue is not guaranteed year to year, data shows Lincoln County’s share has steadily increased over the past 10 years, hitting an all-time high in 2021 at nearly $3.5 million.
VanDeVere said the money is most often used to offset property taxes, but in 2020, Lincoln County invested in a massive expansion of broadband service in the county.
“Every rural house, every hog confinement, every dairy setup. Anybody that wanted it, they would hook it up,” VanDeVere said. The investment meant 99% of the county had access to high-speed internet in the middle of the pandemic.
“It went down fast”
While Lincoln County revenues continue to climb, other counties with wind farms are seeing decreasing revenues.
Murray County was one of the early adopters of renewable energy. The slogan “Acres of Opportunity” still shows up in county documents. The county’s logo even features a wind turbine.
For years, the wind farms generated more than a million dollars annually for the county. But in 2021, local leaders noticed some of the county’s older wind farms weren’t running, even when the wind was blowing.
They soon realized that had a direct impact on the production tax. That same year, Murray County saw an alarming 34% drop in its share of wind production tax revenue, the lowest amount brought in since 2007.
“It wasn’t a gradual reduction. It went down fast,” Malone said.
The county commissioner soon learned that wind farms in the area were being curtailed, or shut down, when the turbines were producing more energy than the system could handle.
“There’s all those resources and energy going into constructing the wind towers, and then they just sit there idle because we don’t have the transmission,” Malone said. “We’ve hit the point where it’s affecting the bottom lines in our communities.”