From more than 11 miles away, the ridge that highlights the Burns’ family ranch is clearly visible as drivers travel north on U.S. Highway 183 out of Early. Rising 150 feet above the land that surrounds it, the ridge has drawn the attention of a company called Airtricity, which is studying the possibility of installing a grid of wind turbines in north Brown County.
“It’s always how we’ve made our living. Financially, it’s our major resource,” said Dr. Paul Burns, one of the ranch’s owners. The working ranch, which includes several restored buildings including a home originally built in 1898, has been in the Burns family since 1873, and has been home to six generations of family members.
According to Burns, Florida Power and Light originally contacted the family about leasing the ranch in order to install wind turbines.
“They contacted me about three years ago. I met with them, met with several of them in fact,” said Burns. “The last group, Airtricity, contacted me about two years ago.”
Shortly after that call, Airtricity set up a meeting of landowners in the May community and gave a presentation about wind energy and presented land leases for those in attendance to sign.
“A lot of people just spontaneously signed up. I came away from that meeting excited, but a little concerned,” he said. Although several of his neighbors signed leases that day, Burns did not. He and his family wanted to research wind turbines and the impact that signing the lease would have on their property.
He attended a Wind Energy Institute conference in Austin. The conference was organized by the University of Texas School of Law and was sponsored by several energy companies including Airtricity and Renewable Energy Systems (RES), another company studying a wind farm project in Brown County. Burns said that he was one of the only landowners at the Institute meetings he attended, which he described as “oriented toward people involved in setting up wind-farm arrangements.”
According to registration information from the Institute, its next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Austin, will include discussions about emerging issues, market conditions, CREZ developments, dispatch priority and siting issues.
The speakers at the Institute and his travels to other areas with wind farms helped form Burns’ opinion.
“Environmentally it’s a disaster. They take your land and the county’s land and forever change it,” Burns said. “They put these gigantic towers up. The towers are 400 feet high. The blades are the length of a football field. The towers are set in a 30-feet of solid concrete.”
And those towers, atop his family’s 150-foot ridge, would be visible from beyond the county lines, Burns said. The pads they sit on, he said, would be there forever. The roads between the towers would permanently scar the land, he fears.
“It looks rugged, but this is extremely fragile land,” Burns said.
According to Patrick Woodson, vice president for development at Airticity, different steps are taken at different sites to mitigate any environmental damage that might occur during construction and operation of a turbine.
“We take great care in picking sites, including studies to determine environmental impact,” Woodson said. “We do a thorough environmental review of each location. We do a lot to make sure our use of the facility doesn’t interfere with their (land owners) use.”
Woodson said some construction timelines have been changed to eliminate disruption in mating and migration seasons.
“A lot of it is site dependent,” he said.
At first, the Burns family didn’t reach a consensus on its course of action. Some members were in favor of signing the lease, others were against it.
“The kids and grandkids were excited at first. We had to take them out and show them what the effect would be,” Burns said. “Financially, we talked about it. We sat down, went through the money and felt it would be devastating to the ranch.”
Burns said the ridge on his family’s property would have contained about a third of the 100-150 turbines that he said are planned for the area. The wind farm that would cover parts of north Brown County (including the Burns Ranch) is being considered by Airtricity. A second farm, known as the Roadrunner Windfarm, is being proposed for south Brown County and would include parts of Mills and Comanche counties as well. RES is working on the Roadrunner Wind Farm.
In August 2007, Comanche County commissioners approved tax abatements for the Roadrunner Windfarm project.
Burns said that most leases he is aware of are for $2 per acre per year until construction is completed, and then shifts to $3,500 per turbine per year, or four to six percent of the gross income for the turbine, whichever amount is greater. Burns said the term “gross” is easily misunderstood.
“In the oil business, gross is rigidly defined by the courts. In wind, it’s never been defined. The land-owner participates, but not like he thinks he’s participating. Same for the county.”
Burns said that it is his understanding that the gross amount does not include the renewable energy credits (REC) or the production tax credit.
“(The agreements) are on a royalty basis. There’s a base rent component, but there’s an incentive for us to make sure its (turbine) is running. If we were to sell any product of the project, they get a percentage of the gross sales,” Woodson said.
He said that tax abatements and other incentives like tax credits are common across a broad range of businesses and industries.
“The truth is, we use incentives in almost every industry we want to attract in this country. Incentives for wind energy are no different than any other industry.”
Bob Garrett, a local landowner and developer, said he has questions about the process used in designating Brown County a reinvestment zone. He said he’s concerned that there was not adequate public notice or the opportunity for input before the commissioners’ vote.
The Brown County commissioner’s court voted in December to designate all areas of the county that are not incorporated as a reinvestment zone. The designation means companies may apply for, and the county commissioners may vote to grant tax abatements. At that meeting, County Judge Ray West said that the designation did not mean tax abatements would be granted automatically, but that it put into place a designation that would allow abatements if the commissioners choose to do so.
“This is not a decision by the court that abates taxes,” West said at the December meeting. “We have to have a consistent set of rules and conditions. There is discretion as far as making abatements, but we have to have rules.”
The Dec. 10 commissioners’ court public hearing and meeting, when it voted on the designation, was announced by a public notice that published in the Bulletin on Nov. 30.
Tax credits and other incentives don’t apply to the landowners because they are not investing in the project construction expenses, which Woodson said are considerably higher than other energy producing systems.
“The problem with wind compared to other energies is unusually high capital costs,” Woodson said. He used the example of a coal or gas plant, which he said costs more to run over time, but not to construct.
“Wind energy has a higher burden of property taxes. Texas has high property tax rates compared to other states,” Woodson said.
The tax abatements the companies are seeking apply to the equipment they install on the project site.
At the Wind Energy Institute, Burns said, speakers talked about the four requirements for a successful wind farm. Leases for the land, adequate wind, close proximity to transmission lines and “getting rid of taxes at the county,” were the key ingredients he said. Neither Burns nor Garrett knew of any wind turbine project that had gone ahead without tax abatements in place. Woodson from Airtricity also said he was unaware of any project in Texas that had not received the abatements.
“These are not dishonest guys. It’s not a question of being mislead. What it is, is that their interests, my interests and the county’s interests are very divergent,” Burns said.
Brad Locker, whose family has owned land in Brown County for four generations, is helping the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce organize a public meeting about how wind energy might impact land owners and the county. He said one of the goals is to make sure the public, and the commissioners in particular, have enough information from both sides of the debate to make an informed decision when they are asked to consider tax abatements.
“At the very least, more information is needed, to properly analyze this important issue for our county. It is an issue that will affect our kids and grandkids far beyond the realm of tax abatements and the wisdom of these four commissioners,” Locker said in an e-mail.
“We are asking them to take a breath, slow down and learn more about all aspects of this industry and its long term affects on our beautiful land.”
According to Burns, the company told him that the original construction timeline was to begin in 2008, but that has been moved back to 2009 or 2010. Airtricity confirmed that a 2009 or 2010 timeline would be as soon as construction on the project could begin in Brown County.
“We’re still in the development analysis stage,” Woodson said. “We do a geological technical analysis of the site as a component of due diligence. We do that a little closer to construction. It takes a couple of years to develop a site.”
Woodson said there is not “typical” wind farm or project, so setting a construction timeline is difficult, but most projects take 6-8 months from start to finish, he said.
Both Locker and Garrett, as well as other landowners, have raised questions about the effect wind turbines would have on hunting in this area, which they say is a major economic driver. According to Burns, who does not allow public hunting on his family’s ranch, there is wording in the lease that might not allow some forms of hunting.
According to a copy of the lease he provided, there would be no hunting allowed on the property while construction was taking place. After that, hunting is permitted, “other than unguided, paid rifle hunting.” Burns said he was not sure what that clause meant, but thought it might concern some property owners, who lease their property for “unguided” hunts during certain seasons.
The luncheon being sponsored by the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce is its second in a month addressing wind energy issues. In January, the chamber invited Greg Wortham, executive director of the West Texas Wind Energy Consortium, to speak about the positive aspects of wind energy at its monthly luncheon.
The crowd was the largest in the chamber’s lunch series. Following the lunch, several members asked the chamber to hold a second meeting, to allow discussion of their concerns about wind turbines. That lunch and program will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 19 at the Brownwood Country Club.
“Our company is interested and sensitive to the feelings of a community,” Woodson said. “We’ve had a lot of feedback from people who do want us to bring wind energy to the area. We will also listen to the people who do not. We want to come to communities that want us.”
Texas lawmakers have mandated that at least 5,880 megawatts of energy used in the state come from renewable-energy sources like wind turbines by next year. By the year 2015, they have called for at least 10,880 megawatts to come from those sources. One megawatt can power about 700 homes.
“Wind energy is a vital part to the energy future of this country. We’re going to have to have power. We’re going to have to have different sources of power. Wind energy is a reliable energy source with the least impact to the environment,” Woodson said.
By Bill Crist
17 February 2008
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