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 jwhalen@sonoraninstitute.org

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Published on May 3, 2010

{ 2 comments }

Jeffrey May 14, 2010 at 7:12 am

60 Acres per tower???? Can you please disclose your source for that information?

Cheryl Riley May 4, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Response from Cheryl Riley, Wyoming Power Producers Coalition

Wind energy facts: Honesty is the best policy

Wyoming has a proud history of providing energy that powers our nation. We export the vast majority of our energy resources such as coal, oil and natural gas to customers willing to buy them. In return, we receive good living-wage jobs, numerous tax benefits, and opportunities to work and stay in the state that we love.
Now, wind energy is the newest player on the Wyoming energy stage. And its contributions are no less important. With the nation’s growing thirst for clean energy like that produced by wind turbines, Wyoming has the opportunity to become a leader in exporting renewable energy along with its traditional energy – and to reap additional economic benefits at the same time. Whether an out-of-state utility wants to buy coal power or wind power, a business-savvy state like Wyoming should be prepared and positioned to sell it.
That’s why it is important for Wyoming citizens to know the facts about wind energy and its certain benefits to our state. Unfortunately, it has been popular in these editorial pages and elsewhere to swirl misstatements and half-truths about wind energy. Last week a Benjamin Franklin quote was used in this space about death, taxes and wind energy, but I like this Franklin quote better: “Honesty is the best policy.”
So, let’s start with the money to come to Wyoming thanks to wind. Wind turbines are expensive, multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment, and wind projects are required to pay both industrial-sized property taxes, a new excise tax, and, starting next year, a huge upfront sales tax on that equipment. Those tax streams will provide money to the state of Wyoming, to counties, and to cities and towns. The Wyoming Infrastructure Authority estimates that for every 3,000 MW of installed capacity, we could create $2 billion in direct and employment benefits and tax revenues during construction, $316 million in benefits per year of operation, and 176 long-term, well-paying jobs.
Wind projects provide long-term, well-paying operations and maintenance jobs that are not subject to the boom-and-bust cycle. They will provide local construction jobs and opportunities for Wyoming engineering firms, concrete and gravel companies, transportation companies and others who want to work on expanding Wyoming’s economy. Perhaps most importantly, leasing land for wind power development will give private landowners an opportunity to stay on family farms and ranches. Payments to landowners for a typical 50-tower project can be as much as $5 million to $10 million or more over the 20+ year life of a project.
Are wind turbines more visible from long distances than oil wells, refineries or mines? Of course. No energy source is perfect. Will wind turbines affect our environment? All manmade structures do. But recall that wind turbines are quiet, clean and need service just twice a year. They generate no pollution or smells. Unlike other forms of electricity production, they require none of our precious water supplies. Cattle, sheep and big game can graze and farmers can cultivate their crops around turbines just as they have before. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the amount of land “permanently” needed for 1 turbine plus associated access roads and equipment would be about 1 acre. Added together, the land required to support 6,000 turbines, for example, would equal about 9.4 square miles – just one-quarter of one township. And wind developers have pledged to site projects wisely to minimize impacts on the land and wildlife resources that we all value.
Wyoming is ranked No. 8 among states for wind power potential, and wind developers, potential suppliers and other businesses are working hard to help build a wind industry to benefit Wyoming economically for years to come. We are collaborating with legislators on good, common-sense legislation like the siting regulations. We will collaborate with legislators again this summer as they review the total tax scheme, currently the least-competitive in the West. We are working to educate communities, partner with wildlife organizations, and support the training of Wyoming people for Wyoming wind jobs.
That said, what will honestly determine if wind will succeed as a Wyoming business is project economics. Wyoming has superb wind resources, but it is markedly disadvantaged by its distance from the markets willing to pay for wind energy. If wind developers can build more viable projects in states that have more favorable development and tax policies and are closer to markets, well, then developers may go there first and come to Wyoming later, if at all.
A non-diversified, non-progressive energy economy? A state closed to new economic and workforce opportunities? This is not the Wyoming we want. If we are not careful, this is the Wyoming we may get.
Cheryl Riley, a Casper native and University of Wyoming graduate, lives in Cheyenne and is the Executive Director of the Wyoming Power Producers Coalition. She may be contacted at cheryl@wyopowerproducers.com

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