Waving Wheat Smells Sweeter
by Peter Asmus
Washington farmers are hearing about a new cash crop that adds significant value to wheat ground and pasture land: commercial wind turbines. Once dismissed as curious toys, wind turbines are now producing serious power in this country and in Europe. Denmark derives about 20 percent of its total electricity from wind, and Texas, which four years ago passed state legislation encouraging renewable energy, now has enough wind power to light a city the size of Seattle.
In Washington, where the legislature has yet to give a boost to wind or other forms of renewable generation, development has been slower. Still, the state boasts two wind farms near Walla Walla, and the annual royalty payments have injected enviable new income into local ranching operations. Will Washington—blessed with thousands of windy acres in its wheat-growing “breadbasket”—reap the benefits of wind power for more farmers?
The wind industry faces an uphill battle here. Electric utilities often voice support for wind power, but only a handful will actually buy it. Most consider wind-generated electricity too unreliable and expensive compared to natural gas plants and hydropower. Energy experts have demonstrated that utilities’ fears about costs are unfounded, and the ‘In the Northwest, wind developers are competing against the price of electricity from hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin—a rate so low that no other generating source has managed to beat it. Utilities, some of which derive 100 percent of their power from dams, are not eager to pursue other resources. But energy experts report that as demand for electricity grows in the region, utilities could wind up in a serious bind: the hydropower system has no room to expand, and as the power crisis of 2001 showed, the system is falling behind. Utilities will soon have to find new energy sources, or rely on the energy market for additional juice when supplies run tight during droughts. That’s what they did in 2001, and farmers and other ratepayers paid a heavy price to cover those expensive contracts.’Waving wheat smells sweeter with wind turbinesregion’s largest electric utility, the Bonneville Power Administration, now welcomes wind developers—but resistance remains. Legislation supported by the Washington Association of Wheat Growers that would have required utilities to purchase larger chunks of renewable power failed in Olympia this year, even though similar legislation has already passed in 13 states.
Washington’s lack of a proactive push for wind power has frustrated the efforts of some farm families to land commercial wind turbines on their land. Their stories are often the same: the developers are ready to build, but lacking a ready purchaser for the power, the deals stall. But those interviewed for this article continue to hope. The potential benefits add up to more than the sum of the royalty checks. Wind turbines generate cash, but since they don’t interfere with wheat farming and cattle grazing, they could also help ensure that farming operations remain viable for decades to come.
The Donohue family in Columbia County is looking to a potential wind farm to help secure their holding, staked out in 1878 on a windy piece of land named after Hubert Donohue’s grandfather—Hopkins Ridge. The Donohues have a power line running through their property, a crucial ingredient for wind projects. They say wind turbines would fit in nicely on their soft white winter wheat fields.
“Wind power is such a clean industry, and it doesn’t take anything away from normal living,” says Evelyn Donohue, whose grandfather came west in 1858 as a cowboy who rounded up cattle to feed railroad crews. “And you can count on the income. It’s like getting a dividend from your investment.”
Son Ryan says he’d welcome extra income that doesn’t require extra work.
“We don’t have to spray it or harvest it. Let’s get the wind farm going!” he says.
Rick Anderson, a wheat grower and cattle rancher for 35 years, has been waiting for more than a decade for wind turbines to be planted on his property. His 20,000 acres just west of Sunnyside—buffeted continuously by 14–18 mph winds—are considered a prime location for wind generation.
“Wind power would literally save my family farm,” says Anderson. “My wife and I could retire and we could then let the kids take over the property.”
But Anderson points out that the proposed Maiden Wind Farm, which could conceivably grow into one of the largest wind farms in the world, promises wider benefits: jobs and tax revenues for local schools and government.
“Wind really is a no-brainer,” says Anderson.
Projects like the Stateline Wind Energy Center in Walla Walla County pay landowners $2,000-$4,000 per turbine in annual royalties. Wind farms typically site about 4 turbines per 160 acres. After only a year and a half of operation, the Stateline project has already pumped out enough tax revenue ($1.5 million expected this year) to allow the county to lower its property tax rate.
The Maiden Wind Farm has cleared crucial regulatory hurdles, but Anderson says its prospects remain iffy in the current electricity market.
“Nothing ever seems to happen, so some folks around here are skeptical,” he says.
In the Northwest, wind developers are competing against the price of electricity from hydropower dams in the Columbia River basin—a rate so low that no other generating source has managed to beat it. Utilities, some of which derive 100 percent of their power from dams, are not eager to pursue other resources. But energy experts report that as demand for electricity grows in the region, utilities could wind up in a serious bind: the hydropower system has no room to expand, and as the power crisis of 2001 showed, the system is falling behind. Utilities will soon have to find new energy sources, or rely on the energy market for additional juice when supplies run tight during droughts. That’s what they did in 2001, and farmers and other ratepayers paid a heavy price to cover those expensive contracts.
Adams County farmer Dwayne Michel has definitely felt the pinch of escalating electric bills. He says energy costs are sucking the profits out of his irrigated crops.
Michel says a wind farm could be just the ticket for holding onto his operation. Michel’s two sons would like to continue a family farming tradition that dates back to 1886.Michel has windy hilltops and he’s got an interested developer, FPL Energy, the same company that built the Stateline project. FPL is proposing about 90 wind turbines on Michel’s land, but contract details with potential power purchasers haven’t been worked out.
Adams County commissioners have been cheering Michel on, encouraged by the economic benefits that Michel’s wind farm could bring to an area in need of new jobs and income.
Paul Van Wyk, who owns 3000 acres of grazing land in the Rattlesnake Hills north of the Columbia River Gorge, says a wind farm he’s discussing with Columbia Energy Partners could help revive the local school district he attended.“This has been grazing land for my grandfather, dad, and now my brother and I,” says Van Wyk. “I’ve always wished I could do something else with the land. Developing a wind farm would allow me to give something back to the community.”
Ag leaders pushing for farm-based energy generation hear a new opportunity knocking in President George Bush’s call for increased domestic energy production. And U.S. Representative Jay Inslee, of Washington, has proposed that the nation embark on a “New Apollo Project” to develop renewable fuel sources that ease our dependence on foreign oil and gas. In other states, farmers are producing ever-larger quantities of automotive biofuels, and farm-based generation is cranking up in those states that passed renewable energy standards like the one the Washington legislature rejected this year. The legislature is, however, considering tax incentives to boost biodiesel production in the state.
Farm-based energy faces fierce competition from the petroleum industry, which seeks to open new natural gas fields in Colorado, Wyoming, and Alaska. The president has encouraged massive coal-bed methane extractions in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, while removing $23-million intended to promote farm-based energy projects from the 2004 USDA budget. Wyoming farmers are beginning to cross swords with drilling companies, who they say have contaminated surface water with methane and depleted local aquifers.
The natural gas is being extracted to feed hungry power plants, which in the Pacific Northwest have become the conventional choice for electric generation as the hydropower system falls behind demand. Experts predict that the region will need about 5000 average megawatts of additional power within the next 20 years—enough for about five major cities—and power plant developers are poised to plug the gap. But conflicts are brewing between farmers and plant developers, too. In Oregon, farmers are challenging the permit for a plant that they say would rob them of groundwater. Natural gas plants use up to 11-million gallons of water per day for cooling.
In the absence of federal support, growing numbers of Washington farmers have appealed to state lawmakers to create incentives for renewable energy. The renewable energy bill endorsed by both WAWG and Washington State Farm Bureau this year (titled the Energy Portfolio Standard) would have directed utilities to acquire a certain percentage of their generation from wind, solar, or biomass sources. Utilities opposed the bill, saying renewable energy purchases would drive up electric rates.
The utilities’ arguments, however, have run head on into contradictory evidence. An analysis conducted by the Tellus Institute, an independent research group, showed the bill would have no impact on utility rates. That finding was no revelation to energy experts.
“Every study shows that renewable energy sources like wind and biomass pay off for utilities over the long term,” says Sara Patton, executive director of the Northwest Energy Coalition, a nonprofit policy group. “Utilities tend to underestimate the value of free wind. Unlike natural gas, its costs never go up, saving ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars every time we get hit with spikes in the energy marketplace.”
The Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets electricity from the federal dams in the Columbia River Basin, has praised wind as a natural complement to the hydropower system. In Texas, the price of wind power fell by half once the state established a wider market for it.
Publications have recently appeared that document the potential wind power in Northwest states and tell developers and farmers where potential wind farm sites lay. According to the Renewable Energy Atlas of the West, a map that visually depicts wind potential in 11 Western states, Washington has more than 1-million acres of windy land capable of generating more power than the Grand Coulee Dam. The Energy Atlas is available at www.energyatlas.org.
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