Across the U.S., rural towns boom from energy investment

Small rural towns in Oregon are booming from wind energy investment. Rural Pennsylvania counties see similar benefits from tapping natural gas resources. Are they moving too quickly?

For the first time, residents of Sherman County, Oregon have an upside to to the "unrelenting" winds of the region they come home: cold, hard cash.

A New York Times report on Monday details how four rural towns -- Wasco, Moro, Rufus and Grass Valley -- are diversifying their economy of wheat farms with wind turbines -- then spreading the spoils around, via $590 checks to the head of every household in the county.

Lee Van Der Voo reports:

Sherman County, which earned $315,000 in property taxes from the first wind farm in 2002, raked in $3 million from wind farms in 2010. The bounty, while mostly flowing to the farmers who lease their land for the turbines, also benefits the public. Taxes, fees and assessments on more than 1,000 megawatts of wind turbine capacity have brought $17.5 million in nine years to a county with just 1,735 residents.

The local debate is whether the region is really benefitting from the deal; after all, wind turbines can be loud and hard to miss, especially when they're arranged in arrays (such as those at 321-megawatt Klondike Wind Farm and 450-megawatt Biglow Canyon Wind Farm).

On the other hand, the towns are seeing more jobs, making neighboring counties jealous of their sudden fortune.

Should a town feel guilty for exploiting new natural resources? Wayne County, Pennsylvania residents are grappling with the same issue as the Marcellus Shale deposit is tapped for its natural gas -- only in the latter case, there are significant environmental drawbacks, especially with regard to the effect of fracking on Philadelphia's water supply, which sits downstream of the town.

Still, one quote from a Philadelphia magazine feature gets to the heart of the economic issue in both areas:

What people in Philadelphia don’t understand is that people up here have always exploited their natural resources. When Philadelphia said, 'We need ship masts,' we cut down trees and floated them down the Delaware. The blue stone that they used to build West Point came from here. Nowadays we ship hay all over. So when natural gas came our way, it was like God gave the people here a gift. Because the economy up here is so sucky.

Is it fair to condemn rural towns to depressed economies? How do we welcome new energy investment without harshly criticizing the hungry towns who are so clearly chomping at the bit?

Photo: Klondike Wind Farm. (Iberdrola Renewables)

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