How a massive Amazon wind farm promises to change a tiny town in rural America
- Amazon announced three new wind farm projects in April 2019 as part of their goal to become net-zero carbon emissions by 2040.
- Large wind and solar farms create economic booms for rural communities.
- Even after an initial construction boom, there is room for business growth.
Buried in the mountains of southern California lies a field of white. It’s not your typical farm: It produces renewable energy. The Tehachapi Pass is home to one of the largest wind farms in the world. Now a huge tech company is bringing more turbines to the area, and it is going to have an impact on a nearby community.
In April, Amazon announced three new wind farm projects — two overseas, and one in the Tehachapi (teh-HATCH-ah-pee) Mountains, located in southern California. The farms will help contribute to Amazon’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2040 and 100% renewables by 2030.
The mountain range is a hub for the wind industry, with around 4,731 turbines that produce about 3,200 megawatts of electricity along the mountain range, according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation, with private companies flocking to the area because of the high wind speeds. Farther north is the Altamont Pass wind farm, which helps power another tech giant: Alphabet’s Google.
Located just northeast of the mountain range is the town of Tehachapi. With a population of about 12,000, Tehachapi Mayor Pro-Tem Phil Smith called it a nice little mountain town, and while the power being produced from wind only comes to the town indirectly through the grid, Tehachapi gets something else directly as a result of the big renewable energy investments.
“The good news for us is obviously we have the economic impact,” said Tehachapi economic development coordinator Corey Costelloe.
Outside contractors come in to work on the wind turbines, staying in the town’s hotels and eating at its restaurants, like Kohnen’s Country Bakery, one of the town’s more popular local eateries. Family owned by Colleen and Thomas Kohnen, the bakery has been around since 2004. Colleen says the bakery is growing, but it’s hard to tell how much of that is because of the wind industry. Though she says that she does get customers who come from out of the city to work on the windmills.
“I had one guy come in last week, and I guess he was staying in a hotel during the week or something,” Khonen said. “And his wife and daughter came up to visit him. That just introduces people (to the bakery).”
Stephen Abbott, city renewables accelerator manager at Rocky Mountain Institute, says that small businesses seeing an increase in revenue is part of the initial economic boom that follows a renewable energy farm.
Keeping jobs local
According to estimates from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the construction of a 47 megawatt (the size of Amazon’s new farm) renewable energy farm could produce around 50 new jobs.
One company wants to keep those jobs in Tehachapi.
World Wind and Solar is a renewable energy maintenance company that moved its headquarters to Tehachapi in 2019.
WWS CEO Buddy Cummings has deep ties to Tehachapi. His father, Steve Cummings, installed some of the first wind turbines in the town. Cummings feels moving the company to Tehachapi is a homecoming of sorts.
“The relationships that got us into the renewables market are the relationships we grew up with,” Cummings said. “Tehachapi just feels like home.”
WWS has a goal of keeping their work local. Cummings says that he tries to hire Tehachapi residents, and use word of mouth marketing.
“We grow by people telling their friends and family,” Cummings said.
The company, which started in wind but has diversified into solar, requires workers to do general labor maintaining solar panels — cleaning and upkeep. The company hires workers to do that work for 60 to 90 days, and if they perform well, the company brings them back to Tehachapi for two to three weeks of training, teaching them how to do more technical maintenance on wind turbines and solar arrays. After the training they can become full-time technicians.
“It’s a quick and healthy way to get people work,” Cummings said. “It has such an opportunity to grow a career so fast.”
The workers coming in to train are spending their dollars at local businesses, like Kohnen’s Bakery, which cited the World Wind and Solar training period as a profitable time because the renewable energy company recommends it to trainees.
“The wind farms have generated quite a number of very good technical, good-paying jobs that can sustain a family and the employers have benefits,” Mayor Pro-Tem Smith said. “So the people in the workforce can look forward to actually a career in the industry if they want, and the pay is good enough where they can afford a home and stay here.”
Wind turbine technicians are making just over $54,000 a year ($26.14 per hour), according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. It forecast employment growth of 57% for wind turbine technicians from 2018 to 2028. In 2018, there were 6,600 wind turbine technician jobs in the U.S., according to BLS data.
api isn’t the only area that has seen an economic updraft from the wind industry.
Benton County, Indiana (pop. 8,700) has multiple wind projects developed over the past decade, one operated by Pattern Energy which supports electricity needs for an Amazon Web Services data center. The AWS farm, its first major renewables project, went into operation in early 2016, and Paul Jackson, director of economic development for Benton County says the area has seen gradual growth after big, initial booms from its wind farm projects.
“Everything kind of flattens out,” Jackson said. “The big boom is over, and you get into the reality of it.”
The Amazon Wind Farm Fowler Ridge project is expected to make $5 million in economic development payments to Benton County over a period of 17 years. The project is entitled to 100% property tax abatements for a 10-year period, after which property tax revenue for the county will start being generated as well.
“Once wind farms came off of abatement, we are getting tax dollars. The tax money is fantastic,” Jackson said.
Between 2008 and 2018, taxes on Benton County wind farms have permitted the county to allocate an additional $3 million to schools, additional money to medical services, $35 million to new roads — upgraded roads were required to transport giant wind turbines to sites — and a total of $31 million in economic development payments to be made to the county through 2038.
A September article from the Wall Street Journal highlighted that farmers in the U.S. are leasing land out for renewable energy farms to help themselves in a difficult financial time.
“I think one thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is that a lot of farmers in the middle of the country are relatively strapped economically,” Abbott said. “Wind or solar can be a really useful additional revenue stream for people and those communities, particularly if it helps them get through a particular commodity down cycle.”
Facebook’s solar power projects
Big corporations want to build on cheaper land in rural areas and that, in turn, can help these rural economies from regressing to the mean by attracting follow-up projects.
Los Lunas, New Mexico is a good example.
The village has a population of roughly 15,000 people, and will soon be home to a Facebook data center, as well as solar farms to power it. The solar farm was an additional project that will help Facebook reach its goal of making the data center 100% renewable. Data center’s like this one and Amazon’s in Benton County are energy-intensive operations.
Both Las Lunas projects are in the construction phase, and are slated to be finished in 2023. Los Lunas economic development manager Ralph Mims says that the construction has helped workers, who previously had to work out of state, find jobs in the area. Much like Tehachapi, the village has seen a similar economic impact from big tech coming in.
“Since Facebook announced, we’ve got an uptick in our retail footprint,” Mims said. “We’ve had new restaurants come in, we have a third McDonald’s.”
Los Lunas also has several new housing projects that are in the works, but Mims believes that is because of natural growth, not only because of Facebook.
“Facebook of course has helped, but I would say that it’s a natural occurrence.” Mims said. “People want to live in a smaller town, taxes are cheaper down here, housing is super close to Albuquerque, we are about 10-15 minutes from the airport.”
Mims said that other companies currently operating under “code names” have inquired about land in the area, citing low costs and favorable weather conditions as reasons for likely future projects.
Abbott said there is little if any economic downside for smaller communities, like Tehachapi and Benton County, getting into the renewable energy business.
“Wind and solar provide a really important additional value and way to maintain the communities that are struggling in rural America, and have the potential to bring technical jobs and new sources of revenue and income to help support these communities during the energy transition.