Margaret and Ian Anderson have made a living for decades dry-land farming and raising sheep and cattle on their Montezuma Hills ranch.
Now they have a new, very different crop: the wind. Harvesting the breeze that blows through their thousand-acre piece of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has altered their lives and landscape in return for new financial security.
The Andersons have 17 new wind turbines on their ranch, each generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity. Utility roads that service the turbines cut through their land, making farming inconvenient and more expensive. Plant diseases are a greater concern now, as crop dusters can’t fly near the towers.
And then there’s the look.
By day their outline changes the horizon; from base to the highest blade each unit is almost twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. At night the dozens of blinking red lights atop the turbine make the sky look like an intergalactic truck stop.
They can also let a landowner pocket up to $20,000 per unit annually.
For landowners accustomed to the business of farming, taking on this new venture was fraught with ambivalence.
“I truly hate the look of the turbines,” Margaret Anderson said. “But I do have to be very careful about what I say, because we benefit financially from them.”
Ian Anderson said the money from the wind energy has given a level of comfort he never had before as a farmer. Royalties from the energy have helped put both their kids through college.
“It’s hard work to create a middle-class life as a farmer, and this wind money has helped us pay off our land and put us a bit closer to retirement.”
Powerful north winds that gust through the rolling hills of the Delta near Rio Vista make it an ideal site for a fast-spreading crop of turbines.
Energy companies, fueled in part by government incentives for renewable projects, are looking to expand their fleet of turbines and are willing to pay top dollar to ranchers for the space to build them.
The turbines on the Andersons’ land are part of the 50 that Enxco, an affiliate of French power giant EDF Group, is erecting in their latest project in the Montezuma Hills. When finished, it will produce 100 megawatts of renewable energy that will be sold to Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Across California, wind projects like these are popping up as the state tries to meet the goal of getting one-third of its power fueled by renewable sources.
In the first half of the 2011, the number of turbines installed surpassed 2010’s total and is enough to power 850,000 homes. There are currently 597 new turbines under construction, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
A report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that California’s wind resources could power 40 percent of the state’s needs.
As energy companies race to capitalize on the funds that subsidize renewable power, they are beginning to change the economics of one of California’s oldest ways of life, ranching.
For each of the turbines installed, the energy company works out a deal for an easement on the landowner’s property that pays them a regular fee for a 3-acre lot as well as a fixed royalty percentage for the power they sell to the utility.
Like the Andersons, many farmers had reservations about the changes to their business and to their landscape. But the money has overwhelmed many critics.
“There were a few holdouts at first, mostly people who like the hills the way they are,” said Tim Calahan, a project manager at Enxco. “But the problem is, with so many neighbors getting turbines, you’re looking at them anyway. Even the most reluctant people are coming around.”
As partners who come from different worlds, energy companies and ranchers maintain a cordial but tense relationship. Many in the Montezuma Hills complain about Enxco workers leaving gates open and allowing the livestock to wander into other properties.
One rancher recalled an instance when an open gate caused all of her cattle to go astray, requiring many hours and extra hands to corral them. When she presented Enxco with her grievances, they wrote her a check covering the entire cost.
Like them or not, the numbers make any misgivings about having a power plant on the property an easy financial choice for a farmer.
“Without having to be fully dependent on farm income, we’ve been able to sleep nights,” said Margaret Anderson.
Though it depends heavily on the type of crops planted, the average acre of non-irrigated farmland pulls in one-tenth the cash of a wind turbine, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Turbines “effectively doubled the value of our land,” said Ian Anderson.
Hemming in the range
And yet, there is a real sense of conflict for rural landowners who face the reality that land is just more valuable not with crops but with turbines.
Giving up land space for energy means a move away from food production – a tough sell for farmers and a shift with broader implications.
“The concern is if you take that ground out of production now, it’s not going into production down the road and we have less land to feed the world,” said John Gampers of the Farm Bureau of California. “It’s one thing to power a fridge, but it doesn’t mean anything if there’s no food in it.”
Gampers is quick to point out that the farm bureau has no official stance on alternative energy. He certainly understands why ranchers embrace it, though.
“If you can lease the land for that amount and not have to worry about the market, worry about the weather, worry about soil tests and have that assured income, I can see where it would be economically advantageous.”
Since the 19th century, California farmers have had an uneasy rapport with oil companies trying to lease space for drilling wells.
A push for wind power in the 1980s brought thousands of smaller, earlier-generation turbines to the Tehachapi Pass near Bakersfield, as well as the Altamont Pass near Livermore and the Mojave Desert.
But government funding for those projects ran dry and many energy companies decided the old turbines weren’t worth the upkeep, leaving them in a state of disrepair.
Beverly Billingsly, who runs a veterinary practice near a proposed wind site in Tehachapi, is leery of any more development and sees it as an enemy of the open-ranging west.
Turbines “are fenced off and keep the cattle from roaming freely. Some of the cattle drivers I’ve talked to just don’t have enough space to keep that many penned in,” Billingsly said.
Wind power, however, consumes less land than its rapidly growing cousin, solar energy. Big solar projects include panels that cover a wide swath of ground, essentially choking off any growth beneath.
In contrast, livestock and crops can get right up to the base of a wind turbine, though airborne crop dusting nearby is generally prohibited. Of the land involved in a wind easement, 97 percent of it is available for normal farming or ranching use.
The Andersons see no reason they can’t coexist with the turbines on their land, despite some inconveniences. For them, Margaret Anderson said, the turbines are “a security blanket, because you never know what’s around the bend.”
Ian Anderson’s father and grandfather were farmers in Northern California; his son Neil – whose college tuition was paid in part by wind money – is prepared to take over the family business once he graduates.
Wind energy “hasn’t changed what we do,” he said. “The reward come from growing crops and food.”
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