How to Start a Wind Farm

Landowners all over the United States have discovered how to start a wind farm; and the new crop is a breeze to cash in on.

Sunflowers and Wind Turbines

Wind turbines are an increasingly more common sight on farmland everywhere.

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As long as the wind blows, people will look for ways to put it to good use, and one new old use for the wind that’s more important than ever is power generation. It turns out that harnessing the wind can provide a significant amount of relatively clean electricity, and wind-powered electricity-generating turbine farms are sprouting all over the country. If you live with lots of wind, there’s a chance that you can figure out how to start a wind farm and become part of the domestic energy generating solution, and make some serious cash in the process.

In 1998, Helen and Robert Emick, who own an expansive cattle ranch in Lamar, Colorado, were approached to lease some of their land for a proposed wind farm. The wind farm, known as the Colorado Green Project, has a total of 108 wind turbines, 98 of which are on Emick land owned by Helen and Bob and their seven sons.

Before the project started, the development company gave the Emicks the names of some landowners on the Minnesota-Iowa border where a wind farm had recently been completed. Helen Emick says they visited with a few of them, just to see what they might be getting themselves into.

“The people we visited with were happy to get the wind farm,” she says.

Several years went by as the area was put through various tests to make sure it was a suitable location for a wind farm. Even before the wind farm was constructed, the project changed hands a few times. But when the contracts were finally signed and the actual construction started, the Colorado Green Project was up and running in about six months. Currently, the Emicks lease their land to Shell Energy and Iberdrola Renewables, an energy development company based in Spain.

All-in-all, says Emick, the construction of a wind farm on their land has been “very positive,” as has their association with everyone involved in the development and construction process. Though, she notes, “It was a mess for a long time during the building process.” Because of the sheer number of turbines on the Emicks’ land, Helen says that over the course of the whole project, a total of 600 to 800 semis drove in to bring all of the supplies.

The company also constructed an approximately 11-mile-long access road that connects the turbines. But the total amount of the Emicks’ land that’s been taken by the road and the turbines is less than 2 percent, and Helen Emick says that the turbines themselves have not had any adverse effect on their cattle operation. In fact, on hot days, the cattle often rest in the shade cast by the turbines. The development company reseeded the grass torn up by the construction process.

Like any landowner who leases land to a wind developer, the Emicks don’t have to maintain the turbines or the access road; that’s all the responsibility of the wind farm owners. And while the turbines have created a bit of traffic on their land – 10 or so trucks a day – Helen Emick says the lease payments have been more than worth it.

According to Debra Preitkis of the American Wind Energy Association, the average payment is $2,000 to $4,000 per megawatt per year to landowners who lease property for commercial turbine space. Considering that the Colorado Green Project produces an average of 162 megawatts of energy per year, powering approximately 52,000 homes, it’s not too difficult to figure out that the wind farm has not only been a boon for the Emicks, but for their county as well.

“The county itself receives close to a million dollars in taxes every year,” says Helen Emick, and some of that money is funneled into the local school system and the county-owned hospital. When the wind farm was being constructed, local businesses such as motels, restaurants, stores and gas stations benefitted from patronage of the workers, and the wind farm has created several local jobs.

A Kansas experience

Kurt Kocher is a farmer and rancher who lives with his family in Cloud County, Kansas, and leases land to the Meridian Way Wind Farm, owned by Horizon Wind Energy of Houston. The Kocher family has a total of nine turbines on its property; the entire Meridian Way Wind Farm consists of 35 turbines.

The Kochers had to wait a full year for construction to be completed on the access roads and turbines on their land, but Kurt Kocher figures that’s because it was the contractor’s first commercial wind project.

“If you had a crop that they went through and destroyed, the landlord stood the expense until they were reimbursed a year later,” Kocher says. Now, though, he says the money the family is earning from the completed project is well worth any inconveniences in the beginning.

Like the Emicks, Kurt Kocher says his family is pleased with the finished wind farm and, for the most part, the wind development company has tried to respect all of the area landowners’ wishes.

“They made an access road through our pastures to get to some of our more remote patches, which was nice,” says Kocher. And the massive turbines don’t seem to bother his cattle one bit. “They’re pretty much oblivious to them,” he says, except when they decide to rub up against one to take care of the occasional itch.

“The really positive thing is that we don’t have any oil or natural gas in Cloud County and this is a lot cleaner,” says Kocher. “Oil derricks and slush pits are dirty and smelly and this is by far a prettier picture. These (turbines) are more majestic than a derrick; they’re streamlined.”

Do-it-yourself wind farm

Though most landowners are approached by a wind development company, some landowners attempt to take matters into their own hands. While it is possible to put up your own commercial size turbine(s) and sell electricity to the grid, the process is time-consuming and expensive.

A major inhibitor in U.S. wind farm construction is a lack of transmission lines that carry the electricity to the grid. Getting a state to install additional transmission lines becomes a political matter that must be taken to your representatives.

Bill Sutton, a grain farmer in Greene County, Iowa, says that if you have the patience, investment money and a willingness to do the groundwork, it is possible to be the developer for your own commercial wind farm.

“I think probably the best advice is that if groups of landowners come together and act as one, it almost presents a ready-made group of people to work with,” he says.

Sutton and his partners in the Hardin Hilltop Wind Farm, LLC, which consists of seven commercial turbines on five landowners’ properties, first hired a firm called Wind Logic to do a wind study to determine whether or not the area was suitable for turbines. In addition to their own investment money, the partners had to secure an equity provider that could inject additional money into the project as well as make use of the state and federal tax benefits that were in place at the time. (Once the equity provider’s investment is returned, the project “flips,” and Sutton and his partners become majority owners.)

Sutton and his partners also hired legal representation, and determined whether there were transmission lines in the area available to handle the power they wanted to generate. They had to negotiate with a power provider to get a purchase agreement for their power, too. Sutton and his partners started the process in 2003; the project was completed in 2007.

Sutton says his personal investment was about $30,000, out of a total investment of about $2.9 million. Sutton earned back his investment shortly after the first year.

“Bear in mind those are numbers from several years ago. Today it would probably cost somebody much more. We’ve gotten a good return, but it was a tremendous amount of work,” he says.

Even though Sutton and his partners acted as their own development firm, they haven’t had to arrange for their own maintenance. The turbine manufacturer covers that along with supplying a two-year warranty, and the option of an additional three years. 

Admittedly, some negative ideas about wind power linger, but those seem to be rapidly diminishing. Much of the bird-kill problems that haunted early wind projects have been corrected through better tower engineering and bird migration studies. While blade shadow flicker and noise is still a concern, turbines are placed far enough away from people and buildings so as not to bother anyone.

It’s ironic, notes Helen Emick, that the very force that brought so much hardship to landowners during the dustbowl of the 1930s is now providing them with a new source of income.

“My husband always says his uncles and aunts who homesteaded out in this country would dream about finding natural gas or oil on the land. Never in their wildest dreams would they have thought such prosperity would come from wind,” she says.

What to Do if a Wind Development Firm Comes Knocking 

  • Hire a lawyer to look over the contract(s) and make sure you’re satisfied with the deal.  
  • Ask the wind farm development company to refer you to some of their existing landowner-partners so that you can visit with them about their experiences. 
  • Be a good neighbor and speak with adjacent landowners in order to avoid conflicts. 
  • Understand that while commercial wind turbines are absolutely gargantuan, they should take up relatively little of your grazing or crop land. 
  • Be prepared for passers-by to want to stop and take photographs of the turbines. 

Amber Fraley writes from her home in Lawrence, Kansas, and is thrilled to see the proliferation of wind turbines along I-70 in her home state.