GRASS VALLEY – Every household in windswept Sherman County soon will get a Christmas gift in the mail: a $590 check.
The lonesome 831-square-mile county may lay to rest the adage about an “ill wind blowing nobody any good.” This is the third consecutive year that checks will go out for the people’s share of annual wind-energy revenues.
No other Oregon county makes similar payments and the $416,540 cash outlay may be unprecedented in the United States, says John Audley, spokesman for Renewable Northwest Project. His Portland-based coalition of companies and groups promotes renewable energy.
The checks are loosely modeled after dividend payments to Alaskans for oil gurgling through the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. The county also gives its four tiny towns – Wasco, Moro, Rufus and Grass Valley – annual checks of $100,000 each.
Roughly 550 wind turbines rearing 300-plus feet into the breezy high desert sky have brought dramatic changes here. Twelve wind farms are now on line, producing 1,000 megawatts of alternative energy – enough to power 100,000 homes – and providing the county government with $9 million annual revenues.
Under the county’s agreement with the wind companies, the payments will continue until 2025.
Officials in nearby counties sometimes express “shock that we are giving that much money to residents,” says Judge Gary Thompson, chairman of the county’s governing commissioners.
But the county leaders figured regular folks deserved a cut of the windfall for having to look at the gigantic structures – not just the 35 or so landowners who reap payments from the companies for allowing wind turbines on their wheat farms. The property owners receive an average of $6,000 a year per wind turbine – and some have up to 30 on their wheat farms.
“We felt if you are going to live with these wind turbines, people should benefit from them somehow,” Thompson says.
Money makes a difference
Before the turbines came on the scene, Sherman County’s hard-gusting winds sometimes seemed a malevolent force of nature. Builders have long constructed homes and barns with plenty of nails and extra-long screws to keep siding and roofs in place.
Ropes strung from Kevin and Kathy McCullough’s house to the barn on their 9,000-acre wheat farm near Wasco made it possible to go back and forth during dust storms without becoming hopelessly lost.
“I’ve been here on days when you couldn’t see five to 10 feet from the house because of the wind,” says Kathy McCullough, a former Northwest Airlines pilot. “When we go someplace else and they say it’s windy, we try not to laugh.”
Sherman County is wide open spaces, deep canyons, wheat bowed low under the wind’s terrific assault and an amazing Oregon anomaly – no forests. Three-quarters of county’s 1,753 residents are 60 or older, and most are retirees on fixed incomes, Thompson says. The county’s population fell almost 9 percent between 2000 and 2010.
But its per capita income – $41,049 – was Oregon’s second highest behind only Clackamas County in 2009, the latest figures available. Wind power has made a big difference: Sherman County was last in per capita income among Oregon counties as late as 2004.
Still, the percentage of county residents below the poverty line exceeds the state average. The county’s wealth disparity is dramatic because the landowners make up a small group that reaps most of the turbine benefit.
Pre-turbine, “this county was 100 percent ag-based dryland wheat farms,” Thompson says. “The ag base has taken a back seat to the renewable energy.”
The county produces 43 percent of Oregon’s 2,305 megawatts of wind power, and the multiple segments of the Biglow wind project on the county’s north end near Wasco constitute the nation’s eighth largest, according to the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C.
Wind revenues have made some significant capital projects possible, including a new $2 million library beside the high school in Moro that serves the public and students. Almost $1 million more went for a building to be completed next month in Moro to house the Oregon State University Cooperative Extension Service, 4-H, planning and wheat district offices. The county installed high-speed Internet access two weeks ago available to the public for a fee. The sheriff’s office has expanded from four to five deputies.
Still, sharing the county’s alternative energy bounty with county residents hasn’t happened without a bump or two.
“Ever since we got that money, we have had problems,” says Sharen Brewer, the 64-year-old ex-mayor of Grass Valley.
A recall election Tuesdaytargets Grass Valley’s current mayor and four councilors – spurred in part over how they’re spending the city’s wind money.
Grass Valley, population 164 and no traffic lights, hired a cleanup crew last summer to help enforce a city policy that requires homeowners to tidy up their yards or pay the bill, up to $6,500, if municipal workers step in.
Before the wind payments, “nobody complained about anybody’s property. Nobody cared,” says Jaylene Newby, 52.
Many Grass Valley seniors are too old to fix up their yards and too broke to pay the town to do it, says 64-year-old Carla Thurston. “The stress has made a lot of people sick,” she says.
But an embattled Mayor Neil Pattee, a resident since 1963, says the cleanup was the right thing to do: “We are talking about junkyards in the middle of town. On one, you couldn’t get on the property because of the junk.”
And now that Grass Valley has some money, the City Council wants to prevent the town from disappearing altogether by promoting it as a nice place to live, says City Administrator Carol von Borstel. The wind dollars more than doubled city revenues, von Borstel says. “If we are going to have growth and entice people to come in, it’s got to be someplace they would like to be,” she says.