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Funding for wind projects generates controversy

KING CITY – If wind energy has become the kingmaker in northeast Missouri, meet the king: farmer David Waltemath.

Waltemath, a lifelong resident of King City, Mo., a city of 1,000 near the Iowa border, and his family own the largest share of the first wind farm in Missouri. St. Louis-based Wind Capital Group leases Waltemath’s land for $18,000 per year to operate six wind towers on his property.

“It’s not a huge amount of money, but it helps. It beats farming,” Waltemath laughs.

Just a few years ago, not may would have thought of Missouri as hot wind energy property. That all changed after Wind Capital Group built five wind farms in the northeast part of the state which power more than 100,000 homes. Some of those homes powered are in Columbia, which buys electricity from the King City wind farms.

The way they have funded these ventures has changed as well. Before the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009, wind energy was largely funded by private investment. But the stimulus package made taxpayer money part of the funding formula for wind energy by creating tax credits for renewable energy projects.

Wind Capital Group says its wind farms have had a nearly-$600 million impact on the Missouri economy. King City farmer Don Eiberger, who has several turbines on his land, says the wind projects brought a lot of money into the local economy.

“We had more money coming in so they got to build onto the school,” Eiberger recalls, “and when they were building it, it helped the restaurants out” when workers went into town to eat.

Wind Capital’s latest northeast Missouri wind project qualified for $107 million from the stimulus. Because Wind Capital Group’s owner is Tom Carnahan, brother of Democratic Senate candidate Robin Carnahan and Rep. Russ Carnahan, Republicans have cried foul.

GOP Senate candidate Roy Blunt has launched television ads attacking the Carnahans for allegedly lobbying in Washington to get money for the wind farm, now standing 100 turbines strong just south of King City.

However, several stakeholders in King City, including its Republican state representative Jim Guest, don’t buy Blunt’s criticisms.

“I don’t believe it was a backroom deal,” Guest says. “I’ve done business with Robin and I don’t believe Russ Carnahan, Tom’s brother, had the influence to pull this off.”

Guest sees the stimulus dollars as necessary for this wind project to succeed, because “wind energy is not cheap right now.”

Waltemath says he doesn’t pay much attention to Blunt’s ads. However, he sees similarities between Recovery Act aid to renewable energy and other federal programs designed to aid farms.

“[The programs] are usually designed so they don’t only benefit you, but so that they benefit others as well,” Waltemath said. “So I look at it that if the Carnahan’s are using this program to help stimulate wind energy, then they’re certainly helping everybody.”

Regardless of whether Blunt’s charges stick, the broader question of wind energy’s viability remains. There is still no way to store excess power generated at a wind farm, and no way to meet high demand for power if the wind isn’t blowing hard enough without turning to other energy sources. Additionally, Wind Capital Group says there isn’t a way transmit energy produced on a wind farm to places where consumers immediately need it.

Waltemath believes wind power should be balanced with investments in nuclear energy. Rep. Guest thinks clean coal technology and solar power have promise in the near future.