Cheyenne— If Benjamin Franklin had ever been to Wyoming, he may have been tempted to change one of his famous quotes to go something like this: “Three things are certain in this life – death, taxes and the wind in Wyoming!” We curse it, we joke about it, and we try to control it with snow fences and shelters. Today, major efforts are underway to harness Wyoming’s wind resources, transforming an eternal nuisance into a major renewable energy resource.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, there are 777 wind towers in Wyoming, with another 207 under construction. Some estimates predict that there may eventually be as many as 10,000 towers in the state. With a footprint of roughly 60 acres per tower and 400 feet tall, that means many Wyoming landscapes will change forever, not to mention impacts on public access and hunting.
Wind energy is most welcome, but Wyoming needs to be careful about how this energy development takes place. Without good planning, residents may be left with little more than a permanent view of blades spinning on our horizons and transmission cables stretching across our prairies. Governor Freudenthal hit the nail on the head when he recently said of wind farms, “I appreciate the fact that people can say it has great environmental benefits, but that’s people who don’t live next to them, or whose wildlife habitat isn’t being disrupted, or the bird population isn’t being affected, or whose view isn’t being altered.”
Besides visual impacts, what will the residents of Wyoming get from of all these wind towers? The short answer is only a fraction of the power they produce and not much in the way of jobs or tax revenue. About 90 percent of Wyoming’s wind power will be exported to our neighbors. And, unlike our experience with coal, oil and gas, after initial construction, the wind-related labor force is very small and the taxes paid are miniscule.
Fortunately, state officials recognize that Wyoming citizens should appropriately benefit from our energy resources. I commend the Governor and Wyoming Legislature for their good work on creating several new laws aimed at getting out in front of the expansion of wind energy development. Regulations for wind energy facilities (HB-72) and the industrial siting amendments (SF-66) were discussed extensively last summer by the state’s Wind Energy Task Force. Both bills were well prepared, accomplished what they set out to do in clear and concise language, and breezed through the legislative process. The third bill (HB-79) sets a moratorium on the use of eminent domain powers to take private land for infrastructure necessary to deliver electricity from a wind power facility until June 30, 2011.
The wind energy tax (HB-101) passed, after it was lowered from $3 per megawatt-hour (MWH) down to $1 starting in 2012. Using existing production rates, the tax would generate approximately $3.8 million annually if it were imposed today, but it has the potential to increase significantly as wind energy expands. Sixty percent of the tax revenues will be distributed to the county where the electricity is generated and the remaining 40 percent to the state’s general fund.
In Wyoming, talk of taxes – any taxes – are fighting words. But, honestly, the idea that a modest tax on wind would derail the industry or send them to other states is nonsense. Southeast Wyoming has outstanding wind resources, and the wind industry knows it. In fact, the Wyoming wind energy tax is a pittance compared to the federal production credit of $21/MWH. Wind energy producers will receive 21 times more federal subsidy than they will pay for impacts to Wyoming’s roads, bridges, landscapes and wildlife habitat.
That being said, with foresight and planning, Wyoming could become the “OPEC” of wind, generating significant revenues for landowners, counties and the state. At the same time, wind development which respects the scenic and natural beauty of Wyoming should be rewarded with tax incentives and expedited review.
Wide open spaces, elk and deer herds, pronghorn antelope and an occasional sheep wagon on a high lonely ridge top have defined the Wyoming landscape for the last 100 years. Now, visualize row upon row of wind turbines on some of our most precious vistas and landscapes – the Chugwater Bluffs, the Laramie Range, Elk Mountain, and the Upper North Platte River Valley. This is not the Wyoming we want. If we are not careful, this is the Wyoming we may get.
The Governor and Legislature have demonstrated good leadership on this issue. This needs to continue. In the end, the citizens of Wyoming need to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to renewable energy development in the state. Let’s not pass the buck.
Jim Whalen lives in Cheyenne and works for the Sonoran Institute. Jim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org