BOISE, Idaho -- Wind energy is facing some tough opposition in one Northwest state. Idaho lawmakers are hearing concerns that utilities and their customers are paying too much for power because of subsidies for wind energy. But on the other side of the argument, there are some who benefit from wind. Aaron Kunz reports.
In Mountain Home, the wind is never scarce.
It’s a dry desert area about an hour’s drive east of Boise. The flat land is surrounded by mountains in the distance. Agriculture is still a big industry, utilizing hundreds of acres that stretch beyond what the eye can see.
Randy Reynolds owns a big chunk of land. It’s where he grows potatoes, wheat and alfalfa. A few years ago he approved development of 20 wind turbines on his property. Reynolds gets a monthly check for leasing his land to the energy developer. The electricity his turbines generate reduce his utility bill. And he gets to keep farming.
Reynolds: “So we haven’t really lost any of the production of the land because of the small footprint. But we’ve generated power to offset that by about a fourth. It sure makes it easier to pay the bills.”
Reynolds says farming isn’t as profitable as it once was. Rising fuel, power and water costs are making it hard for landowners to make ends meet.
Twenty wind turbines now occupy his property. Those turbines are a test project to determine if Reynolds would approve more in the coming year. He had to make sure they didn’t impact his land and those living here.
One of those concerns was over how loud they are…
Standing directly under the four hundred foot tall turbine - you can hear some swooshing and mechanical sounds. But Reynolds says it becomes part of the background at just 100 yards.
Reynolds: “We have people living within a few hundred yards of these and nobody has any complaints. As a matter of fact they find it soothing, almost like camping near a brook. It just has that white noise to it and no complaints yet.”
Wind has been positive for landowners like Reynolds. But not everyone is happy having a 400-foot-tall wind turbine in their back yard. Not because of the sound or view, but because of the cost.
Idaho state Representative Erik Simpson is sponsoring a bill that calls for a two year hold on new wind turbines. He says they cause power rates to increase and aren’t well received in some communities.
Simpson says the wind industry has become too dependent on state and federal subsidies.
Simpson: “If this is a viable industry - let it stand on it’s own and lets see what happens.”
The industry is also propped up by a federal law that requires investor-owned utilities like Idaho Power to buy energy offered by qualifying wind developers at a set rate.
The rate is what the utility would have paid to construct a new power plant. It’s called the avoided cost - but utilities like Idaho Power contend they still have to build power plants as backup. Representative Simpson says utilities still have to supply power to customers...even when the wind isn’t blowing.
Simpson: “How fair is that - that the utilities are forced to purchase the power even though it’s expensive, it’s intermittent, it’s unreliable. So wind is not on a fair plane as all forms of energy.”
Developers point out that all forms of energy production get subsidies in one way or another; wind is no different. John Steiner is a manager at Idaho Wind Farms. The company develops wind energy projects and opposes the wind moratorium bill.
Steiner: “If there are going to be subsidies allowed in our country for this type of project. Why wouldn’t we bring them to Idaho and why wouldn’t we help our own economy in this state?”
Several wind energy companies like Suzlon and GE Energy say wind farm production will slow dramatically after 2012. Not because of the state wind moratorium bill - but because the federal production tax credit is set to expire at the end of the year.
Caught in the middle are land owners like Randy Reynolds who simply want to make the money wind energy developers pay to lease property.
The developer, Idaho Wind Farms, has the permits to start constructing more wind towers on Reynolds land. Large concrete bases have already been poured and are now waiting for the electrical installation.
Reynolds is worried that if the Legislature approves the moratorium, it might be where the construction ends.
Reynolds: “The problem is, if this passes is, they can’t grant anymore permits for instance the electrical permits which will basically shut down this project. Not the entire thing but a good portion of it because we don’t have all of our permits ready yet.”
The wind moratorium bill passed by one vote in committee after four hours of emotional testimony in the house. It is scheduled for a House vote Monday.
Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network