Printed on: November 11, 2012

Benefits of breeze

By Alex Stuckey
astuckey@postregister.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: Idaho has assigned a task force to study the future of wind. In this four-part series, the Post Register looks at wind power generation in Bonneville and Bingham counties. Today's article examines at the benefits of wind energy.

Watching the 13 turbines sweeping rhythmic shadows across his family's 2,500-acre farm, Blair Simmons is glad wind developers settled east of Idaho Falls.

His family hasn't farmed barley or wheat on its land for 20 years because of the Conservative Reserve Program.

Even with the help of the federal government, the family was just breaking even.

But now that land is being used to generate power -- and they're getting paid for it.

"Out here we think: 'The more, the better,'" Simmons said. "What do these hurt? We have a good wind resource, (so) why not use (it)?"

The turbines on the Simmons' land are part of the Horse Butte Wind Project, one of four wind farms dotting the landscape east of town.

The family will receive a set amount of money from the wind developer for 30 years, he said.

Simmons' family is among nearly 50 farm families and landowners in Bonneville and Bingham counties who are able to supplement their incomes with payouts from wind developers.

Many wind energy opponents cite excessive subsidies, decreased property values and adverse effects on wildlife as reasons to eliminate the turbines. But proponents see the clean energy as a win-win

It creates jobs, diversifies the local economy and brings money into the counties.

Since 2006, Bonneville and Bingham counties have received about $2.94 million and more than $625,000 from wind development, respectively.

The money helps fund schools, ambulances, cemeteries, fire districts, libraries and road work.

"Wind is a viable resource," said Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, co-chairman of the Legislature's Energy, Environment and Technology interim committee. "It's a chance to build our economy and develop a resource within our borders."

Jobs

For six weeks this year, Burns Concrete trucked concrete up the bumpy roads meandering through the foothills east of Idaho Falls.

Ridgeline Energy contracted the company to supply 26,000 yards of concrete for the Meadow Creek wind project.

Company owner Kirk Burns said he hired about 15 people to complete the job.

"Ridgeline concentrated on using a lot of locals," Burns said.

The 15 eastern Idahoans employed by Burns Concrete were among the 200 people who worked -- or are currently working -- on the project.

Each wind project employed between 150 and 300 people during the peak of its construction.

Idaho Department of Labor spokesman Will Jenson said those jobs are exactly what the area's construction industry needs.

"Construction is an industry where we (still) see a lot of unemployment claimants," Jenson said. "Any boost that will help get construction workers off the unemployment line and get jobs is good."

Ridgeline will employ about 10 full-time maintenance workers once all the Meadow Creek project's 57 turbines are turning.

When all four area wind farms are up and running, wind developers will employ more than 30 people full time.

And they aren't menial jobs. Those who can brave heights of 400 feet could make $70,000 a year from the get-go, said Stephen Koyen, spokesman for the Northwest Renewable Energy Institute.

The institute, based in Vancouver, Wash., is one of the few vocational schools in the country with specific wind technician training.

The intensive six-month program comes with a big payoff: 80 percent placement of graduates within 90 days and, of course, high pay.

It's a job that Koyen said will never go away.

"(Fossil-fuel) forms of energy will only disappear, and global warming isn't going away," Koyen said. "You can deny gravity, but when you drop a bowling ball on your toe, gravity isn't going to care."

Though it seems like a small number of jobs, Jenson said any job bringing money into the local economy is a good thing.

"Those jobs would either be nonexistent if the turbines weren't being erected or there'd be less work for some of those people to do otherwise," he said. "That's money that will be spent at grocery stores, movie theaters, etc."

And there's still more room in the region for wind farm development and the jobs that come with it.

Bonneville County has two areas designated for wind development still available. There aren't set areas where wind developers can build in Bingham County.

But neither county has pending applications for wind development.

Burns attributed that to wind energy's uncertain future. Wind developers and construction companies alike are holding their breath as the federal production tax credit's expiration date looms.

"There are (wind) developers looking to build in Bonneville and Bingham counties, but they're waiting for the legislation to go through (Congress)," Burns said.

Congress has until Dec. 31 to extend the 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour tax credit.

President Barack Obama has estimated that 37,000 jobs in the country will be eliminated if Congress fails to extend the credit.

When the production tax credit expired in 2008, there was a 10 to 15 percent drop-off in jobs, Koyen said, but wind energy will find a way to bounce back.

"Developers stopped construction then, and they will do it again," he said. "But the need for renewable energy won't go away."

A farmer's income

Members of the Simmons family used to work full-time jobs and farm on the side to keep their 2,500 acres afloat.

That was before the Conservation Reserve Program paid them not to farm.

For 20 years, only dust swirled up on the strong winds that bounced through the foothills.

Now that wind is stirring up more than dust. It's creating power and putting money in the Simmons' wallets.

Wind leases vary depending on state, wind developer and turbine size. But Windustry reports that landowners receive about $2,500 to $5,000 per turbine, $3,000 to $4,000 per megawatt of capacity or 2 to 4 percent of gross revenues.

Windustry is an advocacy group that promotes wind energy and educates people across the U.S. about the benefits of wind.

Koyen said he's seen farmers and landowners get up to $7,000 per turbine per year.

Compensation comes to many landowners in the form of fixed yearly payments or a percentage of gross revenues, according to Windustry.

"(Wind development) benefits landowners in terms of their taxes and lease payments," Eskridge said. "It's a good thing."

Clean energy

One megawatt-hour of wind energy reduces carbon dioxide emissions by about 1,200 pounds, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Considering the United States puts out about 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, wind power could off put those emissions.

Liz Woodruff, Snake River Alliance's executive director, said wind is the key to reducing the country's coal consumption over time.

"We need to make a plan to reduce our carbon emissions, largely because of the health impacts," Woodruff said.

The Alliance advocates for renewable and nuclear-free energy.

The wind association estimates that a single 1.67-megawatt turbine would produce more than 5,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year. That's a reduction of 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

It's not just the possibility of offsetting the nation's carbon footprint that makes wind energy so enticing. It's that it allows the U.S. to have a diversified energy portfolio.

Eskridge said it's important to use all viable forms of energy to power the country: wind, geothermal, clean coal and nuclear.

And wind energy is cheap. The Department of Energy estimates the price of wind to be about 5 to 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which makes it competitive with most natural gas plants.

Wind energy opponents say it's not reliable enough to be a base load resource and that's why it shouldn't be used. But Eskridge said it's simply another form of energy that should be integrated into the grid.

"Wind is a viable resource to help compensate if other forms of energy decrease," he said. "What if we have less water one year? We'll regret not having wind to help compensate."

Tuesday: Wind critics see the renewable energy in a much more negative light.

Alex Stuckey can be reached at 542-6755. Comment on this story on Post Talk at www.post register.com/posttalk/.