Can all of this succeed? That depends partly on state and local officials who control many aspects of the siting, terms and pace of these projects. Whether they are willing to cooperate depends on how much their residents welcome wind turbines. While Americans support wind energy generally, the NIMBY problem applies: Sometimes people support massive wind energy projects in the abstract, but don’t want them close by.
Even when some locals object, however, our research finds that wind development projects onshore helps incumbents — of either party — win more votes for reelection. Here’s how we know.
Lessons from onshore wind
While the United States hasn’t developed many offshore wind farms yet, onshore wind power has grown rapidly over the past 15 years. That has been encouraged by a rapid decline in the cost of equipment, as well as various federal and state government guarantees and incentives. For instance, the federal government provides a production tax credit (PTC), which subsidizes the cost of producing wind and other renewable energy. Most states also set renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which promote renewable electricity production by requiring that electric utilities source some power from renewable sources.
By 2019, the United States produced more energy from wind than from hydropower. In 2020, the United States recorded the largest annual expansion in wind capacity. While offshore and onshore wind development differ somewhat, including in where the opposition comes from and how intense it can be, we can learn something about the political implications of both by looking at how onshore wind farms have affected politicians’ fortunes.
Promoting wind development is a winning strategy
Our research focused on Minnesota, one of the 10 U.S. states with the highest installed wind capacity. We merged the U.S. Wind Turbine Database, which lists the locations of all utility-scale U.S. wind turbines, with voting and census data at the precinct level, to examine how adding a wind turbine between elections affected incumbent state legislators’ share of the vote in the next election, between 2006 and 2018.
According to our analysis, adding at least one turbine in a precinct increases the share of the incumbent party’s vote in the next election by anywhere from 1.8 to 9 percentage points. (The exact number depends on the statistical assumptions we use to estimate the effect.)
Both Democratic and Republican incumbents win
We also examined whether the electoral effects of turbine development differ for Republican and Democratic state legislators. We find that the expected gains are about the same for both major political parties (in one model, 5.5 points for Democrats vs. 7.1 points for Republicans; in another model, 7.0 vs. 6.5 points, respectively).
Our findings are consistent with polling that finds bipartisan national public support for wind energy projects, with recent reports from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center finding up to 77 percent of Americans in favor. While Democrats may support wind energy’s positive effects on the climate, most citizens support its economic opportunities, including jobs and tax revenue.
What this means for Biden’s clean energy agenda
The Biden-Harris administration’s push for a transition to renewable energy can only succeed if clean energy infrastructure is socially accepted and politically rewarding for the elected representatives who must implement it. If voters punish politicians who develop wind in their jurisdictions, those politicians — and others — are likely to abandon their support. But the opposite is just as true: If politicians win more votes because they have built wind energy projects, we are likely to see more such developments.
Our findings suggest that, at least in Minnesota, developing wind farms helps politicians win reelection. We think our results might be true for other states as well. During the past decade of rapidly expanding wind farms, most have been built not in blue, coastal states, but in very red parts of the middle of the United States, where it is easiest to reap energy from wind. According to the Energy Information Agency, the top four states for wind energy production are Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas. Red states are adding capacity as fast or faster than blue states.
To be sure, our project did not control for well-funded local opposition, like the campaign that blocked the Cape Wind development off Massachusetts. However, our findings should allay politicians’ fears of backlash if renewable energy projects are sited in their districts. We can’t promise that wind turbines always win votes for incumbents, but our results suggest that on average, such developments help both Republicans and Democrats.
Carol Atkinson-Palombo is a professor of geography and director of the environmental studies program at the University of Connecticut specializing in sustainable cities.
Mary Buchanan recently received her PhD in geography from the University of Connecticut and is co-editor of “Global Im-Possibilities: Exploring the Paradoxes of Just Sustainabilities”(Bloomsbury, 2021).
Lyle Scruggs (@condorcetsd) is a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and lead investigator of the Comparative Welfare Entitlements Project, funded by the National Science Foundation.