Idaho House Panel Rejects Wind Power Moratorium
by John Miller, Associated Press
Idaho Statesman, March 22, 2011
BOISE, Idaho -- A House panel on Tuesday took the wind out of the sails of those demanding a moratorium on wind power development in Idaho. In an 11-8 vote, the House State Affairs Committee rejected a proposal to ban new turbine projects for two years.
Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Erik Simpson was pushing the moratorium on behalf of residents of his eastern Idaho city and surrounding Bonneville County who are unhappy with dozens of turbines that have been erected, some just a mile or so from their houses. Utilities including Avista Corp. also backed the ban, saying the difficulty of integrating wind power into their electricity systems is driving up customers' rates.
Representatives who voted against the moratorium Tuesday conceded rapid development of Idaho wind farms was creating some concerns, but they concluded a decision to take a breather on new projects was best left to local county commissions. Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, said he feared a moratorium would be an industry-killing message to companies to blow past Idaho in favor of neighboring and equally blustery states like Wyoming that don't have such restrictions.
"I cannot in good conscience shut people off and chase them out of the state after they've invested several million dollars when we encouraged them to come and build wind farms," Andrus said. "I understand there's a problem in Bonneville County, but I think that is a siting problem with officials. They want it to be our responsibility, but it's not our responsibility for local siting."
If development of wind power is out of control, Andrus said he'd rather dump the 6 percent sales tax rebate that Idaho now offers for alternative energy projects than ban projects.
A separate bill to extend that sales tax rebate until 2014 has been introduced in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, but intense opposition from utilities including Avista, Idaho Power Co. and Rocky Mountain Power has forced behind-the-scenes negotiations with wind companies including Exergy Development Group, leaving that measure's future in doubt.
A decision on the rebate extension is due Wednesday, leaving residents in Simpson's eastern Idaho region who spent two days of hearings railing against wind projects still hopeful for at least a partial victory.
Moratorium proponents complained of wind power projects impacts to birds, falling property values - even "wind turbine syndrome," a disputed illness that includes headaches caused by the low-frequency hum of the turbine blades as they spin in the seemingly ever-present gusts blowing from Idaho's high desert to the northwest.
Simpson branded Idaho's wind industry as a government-dependent faction that has taken advantage of federal and state incentives to grow out of control. His moratorium, he argued, would stop any new projects that have yet to begin while leaving projects that are already in development free to move forward.
"A timeout isn't going to hurt the industry," Simpson said. "The wind energy developers are going to have plenty of work while we take a timeout."
During the hearings, however, wind developers with projects in their advanced stages of planning and contracting including RES Americas' China Mountain project south of Twin Falls argued that the bill was too ambiguous and left it unclear whether they would be able to proceed or not.
What to do about wind power in Idaho has become one of the most expensive issues in the Legislature this year, judging from more than a dozen lobbyists employed by the utilities, wind energy developers and foes of the industry who attended Tuesday's hearing.
Before the final vote, Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder and a moratorium backer, quipped that the wind industry was clearly a powerful economic development tool for some.
"I don't deny the hours of testimony we took provided proof to us that in that wind energy is creating jobs, whether it's with attorneys and lobbyists that have been here - or the people on the ground doing the work," Batt said.
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