The wind energy industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. Generation from wind turbines in the United States increased 27 percent in 2011 from the prior year, and is up 350 percent since 2006. You might assume that this power is coming from commercial wind farms, and you’d be right, but not for long. According to a recent report from the American Wind Energy Association, the community wind segment is growing at a faster pace than commercial wind, capturing 5.6 percent of the overall wind market at the end of 2010 and projected to have roughly the same market share in 2011.

Unlike its European counterparts, sharing isn’t as widespread in the American wind industry. Communities in the U.S. seem to have forgotten that it’s not necessary to bring in a mega-corp energy company just to enjoy the economic and environmental benefits of wind power. As Tildy Bayar reports for Renewable Energy World, “European community-owned wind projects have been around since the 1970s. In Denmark, the birthplace of community wind, about 80 percent of installed wind capacity is individually or co-operatively owned; in Germany it’s about 51 percent. Sweden also has co-operative wind, and the community wind market in the UK is growing.”

Slowly but surely, other countries are catching on to the advantages of community-owned wind, and finding ways to emulate successful European co-ops. There are a couple of different community models that work for wind energy:

  1. Wind turbines are jointly owned by private citizens who buy shares to fund the project.
  2. Wind turbines are municipally owned and operated, sited on town land, and tax exempt.
  3. A local entity or group will usually initiate a project, do the planning work, and then team up with a national developer or turbine manufacturer to realize the idea, offering investment opportunities to the local community at an early stage.

This last option has been the most popular in the U.S., although many are hoping to experiment with co-ownership as explained in the first option.

According to Windustry, U.S. community wind projects are owned by farmers, schools, colleges, tribal governments, municipal utilities, local businesses, rural electric co-operatives and others. These demographics make sense when we remember that they have the most to gain from projects that reinvest in the local community.

“Our Pennsylvania project makes donations to the local fire house,” said Jake Susman, CEO of US developer OwnEnergy, currently the largest national player in community wind. ”We sponsor scholarships in Texas around our project there. We’re doing similar work in Oklahoma, and we’re now in upstate New York putting together a community group to let the community decide how to reinvest in the local area. In New York the people want more hiking trails; we also sponsor the local baseball team.”

When’s the last time you heard a fossil fuel company say that?

Photo Credit: Hepburn Wind/Flickr