Cloud County, Kansas, is about as far as you can get, politically speaking, from proudly progressive Massachusetts. In the 2016 election, 75 percent of the county’s voters supported Donald Trump. Yet it was there, almost a decade ago, that I saw my first utility-scale wind farm, its turbines stretching gracefully across wheat fields and cattle pastures. Why, I wondered at the time, was wind power welcomed by this staunchly conservative farming and ranching community while we New Englanders — avid theoretical supporters of clean energy — were so busy fighting wind development in the Berkshires and on Nantucket Sound?
What I found in Cloud County was bottom-line pragmatism — a more potent driver of renewable energy, as it turned out, than our own brand of principled idealism.
Landowners who leased out a few acres to the Meridian Way Wind Farm enjoyed guaranteed income far exceeding what they could earn from crops planted or animals raised on the same amount of land. Local business revenues and jobs grew. The wind farm developer’s $300,000-a-year grants program for community projects won over additional allies.
I returned to Cloud County this summer to see friends I’d lost touch with since Trump’s election, in part because I was nervous to see how far apart we’d be politically. In Kansas, I encountered unbending opposition to gun control and abortion, and strong support for President Trump, but I also observed anew the rugged determination that has propelled this community, and so much of Kansas, to the front ranks of American wind energy ingenuity.
Kansas today produces 36 percent of its electricity from wind, enough to meet the needs of 1.7 million homes. It ranks second only to Iowa in wind’s share of statewide power generation. (Massachusetts gets less than 20 percent of its electricity from all renewables, including hydro.) In Cloud County (pop. 9,533), the Meridian Way Wind Farm supplies enough green power for 57,000Kansas households, and plans are afoot to double the county’s wind generation in the coming years. With new wind power costing a fraction of the cost paid by the typical Kansas electricity customer, this is an economic bargain as well as an environmental boon.
Most of the people I spoke with in Cloud County don’t seem motivated to invest in renewable energy as a way to fight climate change. Some don’t even believe in global warming. But they are bullish about renewable energy’s importance to their community