FOWLER, Ind. -- BP PLC does big business harvesting energy in and around this farm town. But it isn't oil and gas -- it's wind.
Hundreds of wind turbines ring Fowler, their white towers rising for miles amid the golden-tipped cornfields and leafy soybean plants blanketing much of Benton County, population 8,650. More than half of the county's 560 turbines are operated by BP, which has three wind farms here.
"Turbines as far as you can see," said Ryan Linzner, who manages the BP wind farms.
Wind developers have made $17 million in payments to the county and have spent $33 million on roads, a boon for an economically struggling community that about a decade earlier considered hosting a waste dump to generate jobs and government revenue.
The wind farms took hundreds of construction workers to build and created 110 permanent jobs, mostly wind technicians -- in charge of servicing and maintaining wind turbines -- who, according to federal data, earn about $51,500 a year in Indiana.
"Benton County didn't see the recession until 2011," said the county commission's president, Bryan Berry, who has three turbines on his farmland. "The wind industry helped keep things open."
As wind becomes a bigger part of the U.S. electricity mix, it is becoming an economic force in rural communities such as Fowler, a development that is changing the political conversation around renewable energy in many parts of the U.S. Wind supplied just over 6% of the country's electricity last year, and the industry employed close to 102,000 people -- nearly double the number working in coal mining, according to federal data.
President Donald Trump campaigned in part on reviving the U.S. coal industry and has been critical of renewable-energy subsidies. But heavily Republican states such as Indiana, Iowa, Texas and Wyoming have embraced wind for the work and revenue it brings.
Nearly 90% of the wind capacity brought online in 2016 was in states that voted for Mr. Trump, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group.
In the process, the industry has developed powerful allies, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who presided over a wind-turbine boom as governor of Texas, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
While some in Congress have argued against the federal subsidies that wind energy receives, Mr. Grassley said that support helped build an industry that creates jobs and lowers the nation's need for foreign oil. "It helps us to be energy independent," he said, adding that wind's growing competitiveness with traditional energy sources has diminished the need for wind tax credits, which are being phased out.
Excluding subsidies, it costs about $47 per megawatt hour to generate electricity from wind in North America over the full lifetime of a facility, compared with $63 for natural gas and $102 for coal, according to a 2016 analysis by Lazard Ltd.
Wind produces more than 36% of Iowa's electricity, nearly 7 gigawatts of capacity in all, second only to Texas' 21 gigawatts.
The falling price of wind power, along with its environmental benefits, helped persuade companies such as Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google to open data centers in the state, said Debi Durham, director of the Iowa Economic Development Authority.
"We use this wind portfolio, this renewable portfolio, as a calling card when we are talking to companies," she said.
Indiana is an up-and-coming wind competitor, with nearly 2 gigawatts of wind capacity. More than half that capacity is in Benton County, where there is roughly one turbine for every 15 residents.
In addition to BP, which owns wind farms here with Dominion Energy Inc. and Sempra Energy, the area's wind developers include Orion Energy Group LLC, Pattern Energy Group Inc., and the North American subsidiary of Electricite de France SA's EDF Energies Nouvelles.
Credit: By Erin Ailworth