The accident of meteorology and geography that turned the ridgeline behind Maureen Finnerty’s Idaho Falls home into a prime spot to capture the blowing wind and turn it into electrons has also made her an accidental player in the debate unfolding in the Capitol this week over how the state’s energy policy will look in the years to come.
Finnerty says she can count 47 tall, white wind-power turbines from her family’s property alone.
“Cranes were going up behind my house before we even knew what was going on,” Finnerty recalled Wednesday in a phone interview. “The more I become informed of the whole circle of effects, the more I was convinced this is not the right thing for Idaho to do – until they determine what are the costs and what are the benefits.”
Finnerty is calling for a moratorium on wind turbines and supports ending sales tax rebates that since 2005 have helped spur a billion dollars or so in investment in the wind energy industry in the state.
The extension of the rebate, which also benefits other alternative energy developers like geothermal, gets a hearing Thursday morning, while Finnerty’s proposed two-year ban on wind projects gets scrutiny on Friday. On Thursday, Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, introduced the rebate extension with a reference to the nuclear crisis currently unfolding in Japan, saying it is another reason why Idaho should do as much as it can to diversify the sources of its power.
“That incident has added to our nuclear power uneasiness,” Eskridge said.
Not surprisingly, debate from all sides has reached hurricane strength in recent days.
For example, in advance of the hearings, lobbyists from Idaho’s three investor-owned utilities sat down with Democratic House lawmakers to campaign against extending the energy rebate. Idaho Power Co., the state’s biggest utility, has complained that wind energy developers have gamed a federal law to force their way onto the electricity grid, contributing to higher rates for its customers.
At Thursday’s hearing, Idaho Power lobbyist Rich Hahn urged the committee not to extend the rebate on grounds that intermittent wind energy – the wind doesn’t always blow – will hurt its system’s reliability and add to customers’ bills.
“How does this benefit the economy of Idaho,” Hahn said.
Members of the small, 13-member Democratic caucus say Monday’s meeting was the first time in memory they’ve gotten so much attention from three of Idaho’s most powerful companies, a sign of just how important the issue is to them – and how close a vote may be.
“They told us, ‘Wind companies are making a huge profit already,'” said Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise.
Meanwhile, Exergy Development Group, which erected a 183-megawatt wind farm in southern Idaho with General Electric last year, is in league with other wind companies aiming to head off the moratorium and preserve the tax rebates. They say those rebates have been instrumental in helping boost Idaho’s wind-power machine from practically nothing five years ago to likely more than 500 megawatts by 2011’s conclusion.
Peter Richardson, a Boise energy lawyer who represents Exergy, said companies like his are being paid for their electricity only at rates commensurate with Idaho Power’s cost of building a new natural gas-fired power plant. What’s really behind the utilities’ push to dump the rebate is not concern for customers, Richardson said, it’s their fear of losing control of generation facilities that have been their bread-and-butter for decades.
The specter of higher costs for customers is a “red herring,” Richardson said Thursday.
“They want to kill the industry,” he said. “They don’t like buying from third parties under contract, because they can’t mark it up and earn a profit on it.”
RES Americas, the United Kingdom-based company behind the proposed 400-megawatt China Mountain wind farm near the Idaho-Nevada border, is also on the offensive, arguing moratorium proponents like Finnerty have spread misinformation about wind projects’ impact on power rates in Idaho.
Laura Lickley, a spokeswoman, says China Mountain plans to sell its electricity to Nevada, so it would have no effect on what Idaho customers pay.
“Nevertheless, the moratorium … would put the China Mountain Wind Project on hold,” Lickley wrote lawmakers in an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.
Rep. Erik Simpson, a Republican lawmaker who represents the Idaho Falls district where Finnerty lives, is sponsoring the moratorium.
In addition to concerns about customers’ rates, Simpson said he’s been swayed by arguments that construction of wind-power infrastructure like turbine towers and transmission lines could hurt southern Idaho’s sage grouse populations – and speed their listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. If that happens, he said, the impact on activities like ranching could be devastating.
“Above all else, the state needs to have this debate,” Simpson said. “How much wind energy is too much? How much is enough?”
But the issue of what to do with Idaho’s energy policy has divided the state’s dominant GOP.
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, plans to oppose Simpson’s moratorium bill – on grounds that forbidding projects everywhere would be an unnecessarily blunt instrument.
Those aggrieved by the local impacts of wind projects should take up the issue with their county commissions, whose members approve siting for wind projects, he said.
“I don’t want to put an absolute moratorium on projects that aren’t in a view shed,” Anderson said. “Statewide moratoriums don’t work.”