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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

News From My Backyard: Propelled By Voters, Wind Power Picks Up Speed in Washington State

[From the Puget Sound Business Journal:]

When Columbia County resident Tanya Patton wants to get a library book for herself or one of the four children she home-schools, she has to visit the nearby Dayton Library during the 21 hours the library is open during the week. Even with limited hours, keeping the library going has required endless rounds of bake sales, book sales, raffles and other fundraisers from Patton and other supporters.

But the library soon will get significantly more funding, thanks to a boost in the county's property tax revenue generated by the new Hopkins Ridge wind farm [pictured above]. Patton led a campaign to form a new county library district that will share resources with the city library, which may allow the library to extend its operating hours or put its catalog online for the first time.

Across large swaths of Eastern Washington, wind farms are generating tax revenues as well as electricity, pumping additional money into county coffers. As more wind farms are built, their construction and the taxes they generate may have a profound impact on the economic landscape of rural counties.

Three new wind farms -- Hopkins Ridge in Columbia County and Wild Horse and Big Horn in Klickitat County -- were completed in Eastern Washington within the past year, bringing the state's total to six.

Those three facilities more than double the state's wind-energy production, generating enough power to serve three-quarters of the households in Seattle. They will also generate about $3.6 million a year in property taxes during their first 10 years in operation, according to Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based coalition of environmental and consumer groups and energy companies.

And the wind-energy trend is gaining speed, thanks in part to Initiative 937, which will require large utilities to increase the renewable power they generate. Another half-dozen wind farms are under construction, ready to break ground or in the permitting process.

Others may follow, since significantly more wind power will likely be required to meet the goals of I-937. The Democratic Congress also appears poised to extend the production tax credit that makes wind power competitive with energy from other sources.

But the industry faces significant challenges, including a lack of transmission capacity to carry power from Eastern Washington or even Montana and Idaho, the areas with the highest potential to generate power, to Western Washington, the area of highest power demand.

The industry, and individual wind-power developers, also have plenty of critics. Some residents of Eastern Washington consider wind farms visual blight. David Bowen, chair of the Kittitas County Commission, said he's gone to public meetings about proposed wind farms and heard residents say that constructing the projects would mean reducing the quality of life in Kittitas to serve the Puget Sound area's energy needs.

Audubon Washington supports wind-energy development, but the organization also wants the state to study wind-farm siting to reduce impacts on wildlife. Audubon Washington and other groups say proposed wind-farm projects need to be evaluated to ensure they won't kill large numbers of birds and bats.

For better or worse, construction of wind farms seems likely to continue for several reasons. While the Northwest's massive hydroelectric dams have provided cheap and abundant electricity for decades, much of that power is spoken for, and new electricity sources must be found to accommodate growth. Concerns over global warming and pollution make renewable power sources such as wind farms more appealing than such options as coal-fired power plants. Some utilities, such as Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy, the owner of the new Hopkins Ridge and Wild Horse projects, are embracing wind energy. And many customers and lawmakers support renewable power for reasons such as environmental and energy-security concerns.

Voter support for renewable energy was evident with the November passage of I-937 [see previous post], which requires large electric utilities to get 15 percent of power from renewable sources -- other than existing hydroelectric dams -- by the year 2020. Wind energy will likely make up a significant chunk of that.

Although some of the 15 percent will come from solar, biomass or biogas and other sources, wind energy will be a substantial part because wind power is cheaper to produce than solar. Today, only about 1.3 percent of the state's electricity comes from wind. Some of the wind energy produced in Washington, such as electricity from the Big Horn project in Klickitat County, is sold to other states such as California.

The three new wind projects completed within the last year represent significant chunks of capital. According to Renewable Northwest Project, they represent $840 million in total project investment and capital costs, about 743 short-term construction jobs and 39 to 50 permanent jobs. In addition to the roughly $3.6 million the projects will generate in annual property taxes over the first 10 years, the turbine owners are paying landowners between $1.2 million and $1.85 million in royalties. A landowner can get between $2,000 and $5,000 per turbine per year.

Some of the economic effects are being felt even before the property tax revenue is being collected. While Hopkins Ridge was being built, workers bought goods and services in the surrounding community, said Jennie Dickinson, executive director of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce.

"The hotels were full of workers, and the state of Washington has a lodging tax that can be used for tourism promotion," Dickinson said.

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