With all the discussion of Wyoming’s potential to provide clean, renewable wind power, there’s one question that hasn’t been answered.
Who owns the wind?
Citing several years worth of debate over split estates, where one entity owns surface rights and another owns minerals, state Sen. Kit Jennings, R-Casper, posed that question to a panel at Tuesday’s Ropin’ the Wind renewable energy conference here.
He urged the audience and panelists to consider those unknowns through a legislative interim study.
Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Glenrock, a panelist and a member of the Senate management council, said lawmakers should open that issue and should begin by defining the resource and clarifying who, indeed, owns the wind. Anderson noted that some guidance could come from another somewhat mobile resource, water, to which the state claims rights.
Anderson said wind energy and the ability to get power to markets are serious issues where policy makers cannot fail, but that require input from everyone involved to work through the challenges and develop the benefits.
Things are moving along rapidly in some areas. Platte County has one permitted wind farm, 15 to 20 anemometers up collecting data and a recently approved set of regulations governing development permits, panelist and county Commissioner Dan Kirkbride explained.
“We think we’ve got something that’s a pretty good balance,” he said.
Still, Kirkbride has five concerns for his county. Those include continuity, so developers can know what rules apply across county lines. He wants to make sure wind farms go up in the right places, not just the least-regulated areas. Second, he’s concerned about how opposition to wind farm proposals will be handled.
Roads are another area of concern. Like many small counties operating on limited budgets, Platte County is faced with more than 700 miles of roads to maintain. Wind development brings heavy traffic that damages those routes, yet financial benefits from the resource is typically several years out, Kirkbride said. Platte County has instituted a bonding provision that the commissioners use at their discretion, he added.
Taxation is another issue that will need some attention. Wind farms may be lucrative – by his telling, they account for 10 percent of Uinta County’s tax base – but the infrastructure depreciates fast, Kirkbride said.
In line with taxation are incentives from the state level for wind companies, such as Wyoming’s alternative energy sales tax exemption. The counties will have to keep a close eye on future incentives to make sure “the farm isn’t given away,” he said.
Counties will also have to plan for eventual decommissioning of wind farms, Kirkbride said. Platte County has some rules already in place.
“We trust it is enough,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind seeing Platte County become the wind energy capital of the nation, but I don’t want it to become the prime example of how things are done poorly.”
As a state policy maker, Anderson applauded Platte County officials and members of a wind cooperative there for taking the first steps in outline regulatory processes for wind energy development.
“That then becomes policy, from the ground up,” he said. “It can come from the bottom up with approval from the top.”
Another panelist, Nature Conservancy Program Director Brent Lathrop, said collaboration among companies, state and county governments and conservation groups will be critical. Wind power poses something of a dilemma to conservationists, who want to see renewable, clean energy power the nation, but also strive to protect threatened and endangered species and their habitats. While new turbine designs have dramatically reduced mortality rates of birds, the habitat fragmentation resulting from new roads and towers hurts, he said.
He advised developing a screening process for wind projects and funding research to fill data gaps when effects are unknown.
“Let’s think this out,” Lathrop urged. “Let’s do it smart, let’s do it right.”
Panelist Joe Grennan, permitting director for developer Renewable Energy Systems, said the industry wants to do things right, too. He encouraged policy makers to focus on ways to expand transmission capabilities as companies investigate wind opportunities.
“We’re really looking for wind and transmission. If we can’t get what we’re generating to market, we’re in a tough spot,” Grennan said. “Wind energy has a very positive view from the majority of the public right now. As a developer, the last thing we want to do is change that.”
That means adhering to strict internal policies on environmental and other resource assessments – often a key factor in soliciting funding for wind projects, he pointed out. Grennan added that “overly burdensome” permitting rules can be detrimental, and encouraged Wyoming to pull regulations under a state umbrella to ensure continuity.
By Rena Delbridge
9 January 2008
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