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More Commentary: The winds of change in small town Midwest

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Wind turbines in the Grande Prairie Wind Project near O’Neill, Nebraska.

As an ecologist who has worked in the Midwest’s energy sector for 15 years, I’ve been an early proponent of wind and solar for the many benefits to our air, water, and health. But I’ve also chosen to live and raise my family in a small town in rural Illinois, and have seen firsthand the real economic and quality of life benefits that renewable energy projects offer to rural communities.

Over the course of just a few decades America has undertaken an unprecedented transformation towards a sustainable clean energy economy. The rapid buildout of renewable infrastructure has been most visible in small towns where the development of solar and wind farms has brought both renewed economic opportunity and fierce controversy.

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Communities throughout our heartland are balancing the wealth of opportunity offered by the clean energy transition with skepticism about the potential changes large-scale solar and wind developments may bring to the places they call home. And the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, a historic investment in the resilience and prosperity of our rural communities, the Midwest in particular, is set to accelerate the pace of change even further.

The story of Lexington, Illinois — a small town home to generations of my family and home to the Blooming Grove Wind Energy Center since 2019 — offers a look into what clean energy developments can mean for the small towns we call home: better schools, new opportunities, and a more resilient future, all with the character of the places we love left largely unchanged.

When Lexington’s city council first discussed Blooming Grove in 2018, locals raised many concerns about what types of impacts it would have on the small, tight-knit community. The city engaged early with Illinois-based clean energy developer Invenergy to thoughtfully address concerns and gain assurances about adherence to strict noise and environmental requirements.

It didn’t take long for Lexington residents to start seeing the potential of the windfarm to help revitalize their community. They talked about the opportunity to generate not only clean energy but also revenue for farmers and landowners, new jobs, and added support for Lexington’s parks, schools, and other services.

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Lexington is now two years into the project, and minor growing pains from construction have returned to normal. In the meantime, economic and community benefits are already making themselves felt. The school district alone is reaping roughly $1 million a year in additional tax revenue from the windfarm, a number that accounts for nearly 15% of their revenue stream and comes at a time when many rural schools are struggling to stay afloat and provide for the needs of all students.

Superintendent Paul Deters says revenue from the windfarm has taken the district from surviving to thriving, and the district has recently announced a $10 million renovation and expansion of its facilities.

Altogether the renewable energy project is projected to infuse nearly $120 million into Lexington’s economy from tax revenue, jobs, and landowner payments, providing a financial lifeline to local families while reducing the overall tax burden of residents and small business owners.

Meanwhile, Lexington’s charming, small-town character has stayed more or less the same, with some welcome new additions. An article published earlier this year highlighted some of the new small businesses, restaurants, and breweries popping up in Lexington, partly in response to a forward looking region buttressed by economic developments like the Blooming Grove wind farm and a nearby electric vehicle manufacturing plant.

With the price of solar and wind technologies nearly ten times lower than it was a decade ago, now is the time to accelerate the clean energy transition even faster. The Inflation Reduction Act makes renewables a no-brainer for energy producers, consumers and communities alike through subsidies and tax credits, rebates, loans, and grants.

It’s also designed to guide these investments directly to rural, low-income, and minority communities to ensure the benefits are felt in our smallest towns as well as our most populous cities. This will encourage better paying jobs and American-made supply chains and provide tremendous opportunity to any community that wants to enjoy the benefits of the clean energy transition.

Clean energy developments such as Blooming Grove help small towns help themselves, leveraging their natural bounty to bring jobs and investment to communities across the Midwest. Now, with the backing of the Inflation Reduction Act, these investments will be more cost-effective and realistic than ever before. I’ll be working to ensure that my town doesn’t miss out on these opportunities. I hope you’ll join me.

OWH Midland Voices October 2022

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Alma Cerretta writes, "Paying fair wages is the single best way you can show your employees that you value them."

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Andy Jobman writes, "Genetic technology has increased the resiliency of our crops to meet a growing population and reach new markets."

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Chris Wagner writes, "According to both the CDD and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, more than 700 Nebraskans die every year from alcohol-related causes, including more than 70 due to cancers connected to alcohol consumption."

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Janet Seelhoff writes, "As the Baby Boomer generation continues to grow older, preserving access to senior-focused services like home health care will only continue to increase in importance."

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Eric Dunning and Robert M. Bell write, "Insurtech is a growing area working to bring enhanced insurance products to the market by using new solutions to solve old problems in a very old business."

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Jeremy Nordquist writes, "Hospitals are facing skyrocketing costs while their reimbursements from payers are woefully insufficient and stagnant."

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Donald R. Frey and John Kretzschmar write, "In a consumer-driven economy where consumer spending accounts for about 70% of GDP, the best friend of Main Street merchants is a well-compensated workforce."

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Arthur Diamond writes, "In the labor market, if you force the price above the equilibrium, as you do when the government imposes a minimum wage, the market no longer clears."

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UNO Chancellor Joanne Li writes, "The future is bright here in Nebraska, but in order to truly envision what that future holds, we must change our vantage point as learners and as educators."

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Rebecca S. Fahrlander, Ph.D., writes, "I am reminded that many of today's problems were there in 1996 or 2001. Moreover, the end of times predicted back then did not happen."

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Giovanni Portera writes, "The original intent of Columbus Day as a federal holiday marked the end of thousands of years of isolation between the western hemisphere and the rest of the world."

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Veta Jeffery writes, "The chamber recognizes that on top of the job that Offutt provides in protecting our country, they also play an invaluable role in our local economy."

Amanda Pankau is senior energy campaign coordinator of Prairie Rivers Network.

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Community columnist Jeremy Aspen writes, "Let’s assume (Pete) Ricketts is the appointee (to Sen. Ben Sasse's seat). There’s a chance he understands this looks tawdry, inappropriate and is a bit of a liability."

As this session of Congress winds down, it’s important to note its many achievements. The current Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure package, bipartisan anti-gun violence reform and a COVID relief package. It made historic investments in climate change and health care while holding the former president accountable by exposing the truth behind the Jan. 6 insurrection.

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