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Wind a Friend to Rural Counties

by Mary Hopkin, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, June 25, 2006

When the money men first showed up in Columbia County in the 1990s with big plans to build tall windmills, locals thought the Texans were trying to sell snake oil.

It was years before folks like fourth-generation farmer Rick Turner bought into what they first viewed as wind farm folly.

Now for Turner, his fellow farmers and rural counties in Eastern Washington and Oregon, money is blowing in the wind.

Turner, who grows wheat, dry peas, a little barley and runs some cattle, said he always wondered why his great-grandfather decided to settle and farm the windy hills northeast of Dayton in the late 1870s.

"Now I love it when the wind blows," said Turner, one of 11 Columbia County residents who own land under the Hopkins Ridge Wind Farm.

It's one of the four wind farms operating in Eastern Washington. Oregon's Umatilla County boasts three. And five more are in the planning or construction phases.

Jeff King, a senior resource analyst for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said companies are rushing to get projects built before the end of 2007, when a federal tax credit for wind farm construction expires.

The penny-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit was tucked into the 1992 Energy Policy Act.

"It was intended as a means of commercializing the technology," King said.

The tax credit, which is indexed for inflation, now reaches almost two cents per kilowatt hour and those pennies add up.

King said a 100-megawatt project would receive about $5.3 million in tax credits during its first year, and the credit would continue for 10 years.

"Congress has renewed it in fits and starts, and the industry has responded the same way," he said. "When it's extended, production is up. When it's not in effect, production is about zero. It has led to the current frenzy."

Some people worry about the aesthetics of the towers, which can stretch 200 feet high.

Others, like Mike Denny of the Blue Mountain Audubon Society, say the wind farms pose risks to many raptors and other birds if sited in migration paths.

"Placement is everything," he said.

But few others are complaining.

King said farmers receive $2,000 to $4,000 annually for each turbine on their land.

"It's not just good for me. It's good for everyone, for the whole community," Turner said.

Columbia County officials are looking forward to 2007, when they can start collecting property taxes on the Hopkins Ridge Wind Farm, which was constructed by Puget Sound Energy last year.

Christine Miller, Columbia County assessor, estimates the 83-turbine wind farm will pay about $1.24 million in personal property taxes. More than $300,000 of that will go directly to the state school fund, and another $300,000 will go to pay off voter-approved bonds and levies.

The rest either will cut the amount other Columbia County residents pay in property taxes or swell county coffers.

That's partly dependent on what happens with appeals of a recent court ruling that invalidated Initiative 747, which would have limited increases in property tax collections to 1 percent yearly.

Miller said although the windmill revenue is no windfall, it is helpful and increases the county's total assessed value, thus boosting the potential tax revenue.

But, "by the time it's all split up between everyone, it's not much," she said.

Barbara Wagner, Benton County assessor, wouldn't mind spreading even a little extra personal property tax money among her taxing districts.

Although Benton County has wind turbines, they aren't paying taxes because the 61-turbine Nine Canyon wind farm is owned by Energy Northwest, a tax-exempt public utility.

"We get nothing from the owners of the machines, or from the owners of the land," she said.

Although the cost of the initial project in 2001 and an expansion two years later topped $90 million, "We get a big, fat goose egg," said Wagner.

Walla Walla County collects more than $1.5 million each year in property taxes from Stateline Wind Farm on Vansycle Ridge on the Washington-Oregon border.

Anne Walsh, Puget Sound Energy's environmental and communications manager for the Hopkins Ridge Wind Project, said property taxes aren't the only financial benefit the wind farms provide.

The company, which also is preparing to build the Wild Horse Wind Power Project in Kittitas County, built an office at the wind farm site and also has one in Dayton. The project, which cost about $200 million to build, supports two dozen full-time employees.

"We have lease agreements for 35 years," she said.

Iris Rominger, Kittitas County assessor, said she is looking forward to the additional property taxes from the Wild Horse project.

"It will be a nice windfall and all the (taxing) districts will benefit," she said. "There is no downside from the financial aspect."

A study released in May by Oregon State University economists said wind energy development in Umatilla County could have a multimillion-dollar impact on the state's economy.

Umatilla County boasts three wind farms within its borders -- including a portion of Stateline -- that bring in a total of $1.5 million to the county.

"What's not to like about wind power?" asked County Assessor Paul Chalmers.

The OSU researchers said Umatilla County has the capacity to generate about 480,000 megawatt hours of wind energy a year, enough to power about 46,000 Oregon homes. And most of the investment is from out of state, said Melissa Torgerson, a graduate student in OSU's master of public policy program and one of the report authors.

"In terms of nonlocal investors, the long-term impacts ... come from land lease payments made to local farmers and landowners, as well as county property taxes," she said.

Rural communities also should look at creating secondary businesses in the community that complement the wind farms and look at ways communities can invest in the projects themselves.

She said revenue from farms not locally owned tends to leave the community and the local economy.

"Our research indicates that if local capital could be used to support local ownership of wind turbines, the economic impacts of wind power may be doubled or tripled," she said.

Mary Hopkin, Herald staff writer
Wind a Friend to Rural Counties
Tri-City Herald, June 25, 2006

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