The cranes now hoisting giant wind-turbine blades between Williams and the Grand Canyon represent a victory for renewable-energy advocates and a defeat for nearby residents who fear for their property values.
The debate foreshadows others on the horizon as utilities rapidly increase the amount of energy they get from renewable sources such as solar and wind, and as those projects encroach farther on people in rural areas.
The Perrin Ranch Wind Energy Project now under way and scheduled to open in early 2012 is the culmination of years of debate regarding Arizona wind farms.
Utilities such as Arizona Public Service Co., which will buy all of the energy produced by the 62 Perrin Ranch turbines, previously turned to less expensive New Mexico wind farms to help them meet the state requirement that they get 15 percent of their power from renewables by 2025.
But Arizona utility regulators debated whether it would be more beneficial to the state economy if Arizona utility customers’ monthly payments supported projects in their own state.
When the five elected Arizona Corporation Commission members approved a rate hike for APS in 2009, one of the requirements in the complex settlement was that the utility pursue power from an Arizona wind farm.
After issuing a request for proposals, APS agreed to buy power for 25 years from the 99-megawatt Perrin Ranch project proposed by a subsidiary of NextEra Energy Inc.
“It was obviously a long battle to get an Arizona wind farm built,” said Kris Mayes, who served as chairwoman of the commission when the case was settled and now teaches law at Arizona State University. “We had a huge debate at the commission about in-state versus out-of-state wind. For the most part, the in-state projects cost a little bit more than New Mexico wind, but ultimately we are going to create jobs and opportunity in Arizona by building wind projects here.”
She said that Arizona utility customers should benefit from their money being spent in-state through property taxes and payments to landowners.
“There are legitimate concerns that homeowners have with regard to visual aesthetics and noise, and even in cold climates, ice (being thrown from the blades), believe it or not,” Mayes said. “These are all things that can be mitigated if you site these projects correctly.”
She said the problems with wind are less severe than those with other resources used to generate power.
“No energy project is perfect,” she said. “They all have drawbacks. But renewable-energy projects like wind turbines have far fewer impacts.”
Opponents of the project estimate they have 1,000 property owners in the region, many who live out of state, who didn’t want it built.
Linda Webb is president of one of four property-owner groups that formed the Canyon Country Coalition for Responsible Renewable Energy to fight the project. She and her husband bought land on the north side of what is now the wind farm in 1999 and moved there in 2003 because they loved the high-desert views.
“You can see them from everywhere,” she said of the turbines about 3 miles from her home. “They are visible out our front window. We can see 30-plus of them.”
She said the coalition spent about $15,000 in donations to fight the project but finally gave in because of the expense and unlikely shot at success.
“I know property values have dropped,” she said. “Some people around us have a total view of 180 degrees of nothing but wind farm.”
Although they lost their fight against the project, she and others continue to oppose the myriad other proposals for wind farms in the area.
“We have given anyone else that might want to build at least pause for thought,” she said. “There is a concern Perrin Ranch might expand. There is plenty of room acreage-wise. We are concerned (developers) might try to invade the whole corridor.”
Keeping ranching heritage
Mike Macauley’s family has been ranching in Arizona since 1870 after relocating here from Alabama, and has owned the land that will house about half the Perrin Ranch turbines since 1894. He said the decision to site the wind farm was difficult, but he thought it was the best option to maintain his family’s ranching heritage.
Though the turbines have an obvious effect on the views, sheep and cattle still will be able to graze the land, and hunters will be able to continue using it. In fact, because NextEra built new roads on the ridgetops, some old roads in canyon bottoms can be reclaimed, providing grassland for livestock, he said.
“There are a number of things you balance,” Macauley said. “What is it going to look like when those things go up? What did it look like before? What is the heritage? From a stewardship side, what are you trying to accomplish? From the ranching side, what are you trying to accomplish? From a generational side, my kids are all interested in continuing the family operation.”
He said ranchers need to find additional revenue streams to stay in business. Neither he nor NextEra would disclose the money he will earn from the turbines, but a typical agreement pays the owner $3,000 to $5,000 annually, according to the American Wind Energy Association. NextEra estimates the state land department, which has about half the turbines on its land, will generate $7.9 million in lease payments in 25 years.
“If done properly, this benefits the families that are going into it and can help them stay in agriculture,” Macauley said. “It’s better than turning around and growing houses. Then you can’t grow anything else. It’s not that these don’t cause a visual impact, because they do. But the fact of the matter is that they keep the ranch open for livestock and wildlife.”
He said the application with the county was sometimes contentious with the project opponents but that he appreciated their input.
“I guess the best way to put it, I found out more about my neighbors than I ever wanted to know,” he said. “They brought forth some very good points. They had a positive influence on the project, making it better.”
Fourth and largest in Arizona
Perrin Ranch will be the fourth and largest wind farm in Arizona, which is quickly adding renewable power plants to meet the state requirement for alternative energy and host renewable-power plants that will power California, which has an even larger renewable requirement for utilities.
APS is meeting the current requirement for renewable power in Arizona. But to meet the final figure of 15 percent in 2025, it will need much more power from projects like Perrin Ranch and the Solana Generating Station solar plant being built near Gila Bend.
Salt River Project, which has its own, similar renewable-power requirement, already buys power from a wind farm built in two phases near Holbrook, and UniSource Energy Services gets power from a small wind farm recently opened near Kingman.
SRP has agreed to buy power from two other wind farms being built in the Seligman area, one to be built by NextEra and another to be developed by a subsidiary of Edison International in California.
Perrin Ranch will cost about $200 million to build, according to NextEra. Federal grants can cover 30 percent of the cost of such projects, worth almost $60 million in this case.
About 200 people have been put to work building the project, and six will work there full time to run and maintain it once it’s finished, according to NextEra.
NextEra expects the county to benefit from $4 million to $7 million in additional property-tax collections during the project’s life, said Matt Gomes, the project manager for NextEra. The company also is providing $1 million to High Country Fire-Rescue and also helping permit a new fire station.
However, the total tax benefits are difficult to determine because the project is on state and private land, and how the private land will be assessed is unclear, according to NexEra. Critics contend that broken down annually, the tax benefits are not substantial.
The turbines stand nearly 400 feet tall when the blades are pointing straight up. Each turbine can generate about 1.6 megawatts of power in a steady breeze, enough power to supply about 400 homes at once.
Wind farms only run at their maximum capacity about 20 to 35 percent of the time, depending on their location and the local weather. But Steve Stengel, spokesman for NextEra Energy, said that too many critics get hung up on that figure.
With a breeze of 8 miles per hour or so, the turbines begin turning and making electricity, just not their maximum capacity, which they hit when the wind speeds get to about 22 mph. A sustained wind of 56 mph or a gust of 100 mph will cause the turbines to shut down for safety.
“This project will generate electricity 75 to 80 percent of the time,” Stengel said. “Where people get hung up or confused is regarding maximum capacity.”
Thirty miles of new roads and underground utilities were constructed, and each turbine has a 90,000-square-foot pad that was cleared for construction.
Much of that disturbed land will be remediated so that native vegetation can regrow up to the base of the turbines, but each will maintain a service road.
Showing support for wind farms
Perrin Ranch was divisive at the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, who approved it on a 3-2 vote.
The wind farm straddles two districts, and those supervisors even split their votes. Matt Ryan, representing the south end of the project where more people live in the vicinity of the turbines, opposed it, while Carl Taylor, representing the north, approved it.
Taylor said the financial benefits to the county are minimal from the project, but that he approved it because he supports renewable power in general and felt that the county needed to “walk the walk” on such issues.
He also said the county got important concessions. The turbines are barely visible from the highway leading to the Grand Canyon, are set back a half-mile from property boundaries to reduce or eliminate noise to neighbors, and were realigned in some cases so that homeowners’ views of the San Francisco Peaks are not obstructed by turbines.
He was disappointed that NextEra would not agree to guarantee property values for landowners adjacent to the wind farm and compensate them if values drop. The county attorney said such an agreement would not be enforceable in Arizona, Taylor said.
Taylor said that the NextEra did a poor job of reaching out to the community, creating more acrimony than necessary.
“They had a tin ear, I felt, toward the concerns of the adjacent landowners,” he said. “Which was surprising, considering they are the largest developer of wind farms in the country.”
He said NextEra has hired a local consulting firm that has helped reach out to concerned neighbors.
Another concession the county got was to require NextEra to install lights on the turbines that only turn on when radar detects aircraft in the area, minimizing the time lights are needed at night. The Federal Aviation Administration still must approve such a system before NextEra uses it.
But after the initial approval, NextEra tried to get that requirement overturned, which Taylor said created tension among opponents. But he said the planning department for the county found no reasons the turbines won’t comply with the regional plan, and he did not believe supervisors had legal grounds to deny the project.
Critics determined to block other projects
Critics of the project remain unswayed and hope to block any other wind farms in Coconino County.
Art Pundt of Flagstaff has been fighting wind farms for the past several years near his summer home in upstate New York, and he said he opposed Perrin Ranch on broader terms than its effect on views.
“Views are not the issue for me,” he said. “If we are going to seriously look at our energy and climate problems, I just don’t see wind as the answer.”
He said the wind farm doesn’t produce enough electricity to warrant the local impacts.
“If you are going to really displace coal, nuclear and natural gas with renewables, it simply is not going to happen because of land area needed and habitat loss needed for solar and wind and how much wind and solar you would need,” he said. “I would rather see these (wind) subsidies go to individuals who want solar or wind on their own property. Honestly, I think commercial-scale wind is a scam.”
Lisa Paffrath of Flagstaff owns two pieces of property near the wind farm where she and her family frequently like to camp, she said. But she also sells land in the area as a real-estate agent, which has been made more difficult by the turbines.
She recently had a woman from Phoenix request to see some parcels near the wind farm, and she had to tell her the turbines were within the view.
“Everybody says the same thing: No thank you,” she said. “Luckily, I sell (land) throughout the county. I showed that woman from Phoenix some stuff in other parts of the area. You just have to have your fingers crossed the county doesn’t approve a wind farm there.”
Perrin Ranch will employ six full-time workers to keep the turbines running, said Matt Gomes, the project manager for NextEra.
The industry average wage for technicians is between $16 and $20 an hour to start. The two other positions, a high-voltage technician and site leader, make about $45,000 and as much as $90,000 a year, respectively, Gomes said.
But the work is not easy. The tops of the towers where the blades are attached, called the nacelles, are about 260 feet high, and the technicians must climb ladders up them daily for maintenance.
“The best guys can climb them in three minutes,” said Manny Morrell, the site manager who will run the wind farm once it’s complete.
The company had a recruiting event in the fall at a hotel in Williams, and about 20 people showed up.
When they found out that part of the job involves climbing out of the nacelle about 260 feet off the ground and crawling down the nose into a small compartment where repairs might be needed, about half the audience left, Gomes said.
To avoid a dangerous fall, workers are tethered to the ladder as they climb, and at some of its wind farms, NextEra is installing counterweights that help ease the climb.
NextEra hired one resident from the Prescott area who had not worked on a wind farm before, who will be trained to work at Perrin Ranch. The other five workers, including Morrell, will relocate their families to the area to work at the wind farm.
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