United States

United States

Farmers need the land rent more -- Idaho citizens object

Idaho, regarded as the 13th windiest state in the US, has only 75 MW of operating wind plant. But that's all about to change. Several projects in the 10-20 MW range are in the works, along with the biggest development by far -- the 200 MW Cotterel Mountain Wind Farm -- which is on a path for connection in 2008.

There is a problem, however. Residents in and around Albion, a town of 262 people in the south-central part of the state, are not all in favour of putting the project in their backyard, where the Cotterel Mountain Ridge provides a home to wildlife, a place for recreation and a scenic view.

"There's wind everywhere in Idaho and so much vacant land," says Jim Wahlgren, an Albion resident who heads a local committee trying to stop the project. "It's one of the lowest populated states in the nation. Wind power is coming. There's no stopping that. It's going to be all over Idaho before long. But my biggest question is, why here?"

The project, a collaboration between the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Idaho-based developer Windland Inc, has been in the works since 2001. BLM recently authorised a right-of-way for the development on some seven square miles of public land. While only 350 acres of ground will actually be disturbed, plans for the development include planting 80 or more turbines along 14.5 miles of scenic ridgeline.

The authorisation is part of BLM's recent effort to streamline the permitting procedure for developing wind power on public land. The process includes the bureau's Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), which was developed with the input of a variety of different organisations (Windpower Monthly, July 2005) and put into practice in December as part of a nationwide effort to accelerate site analysis regarding best management practices.

"I wouldn't say that there aren't other sites available," says BLM's Scott Barker. "But the applicant applied for that site, so that's where we did our analysis. I have to believe if there were other really good, viable sites, we would probably have applications for them -- either from Windland or other developers."

Good resource

As for Windland, which still seeks a power purchase agreement and has yet to secure wind turbines for the project, the Cotterel Mountain site is deemed ideal. The company intends to start work on the physical infrastructure by next summer and begin actual construction in 2008. "As with all wind developers, we go where the wind is," says Windland's Mike Heckler. "The topography on Cotterel Mountain makes it a very good resource area and the BLM did a very appropriate analysis. We believe that it's the best wind resource in Idaho."

But Wahlgren sees a different side of the situation and points to the annual payments BLM stands to receive from the project. "BLM owns the land and they want to collect the $2800 per tower," he says. "The project really should be on private property. The farmers around here are going broke and they'd love to have that source of income. Why not let the money go to some individuals who own the land?"

Economy

Windland will contribute half a percent of the wind farm's earnings to an environmental mitigation fund -- estimated to be about $150,000 annually. Further, an estimated $12.5 million in sales taxes and another $1 million in annual property taxes are expected to be pumped into the regional economy. Construction is expected to provide 120 jobs, with a dozen permanent jobs to follow.

"That means nothing to us," says Wahlgren. "If we're talking about money coming into the area, that would still be happening if they built the project anywhere else in the county." At this point, Wahlgren does not believe the wind farm can be stopped -- despite a survey of 500 residents that he says shows 80% are against it on the proposed location.

"Delaying it might be successful, but stopping it is probably impossible," Wahlgren says. "There are so many big guns behind it that I can't imagine anything stopping it. BLM washed right over that survey like it never happened. It's not worth the paper it's printed on. And if somebody had told me when I moved here five years ago that windmills would be a few miles outside my window, I'd have kept on driving."

Meanwhile Windland, which has been involved in wind project development since 1982, points to a poll of its own. According to Heckler, 300 registered voters in the area were surveyed and 85% favour the Cotterel project.

But regardless of differing opinions, BLM's Barker adds a final thought. "Any way you look at it, wind power is a business," he says. "And a business is going to want to use the best site possible."

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