HEPPNER – Election-year politics and a soon-to-expire federal energy tax credit program could stall or scuttle a proposed wind farm on the gusty open bluffs of northeastern Oregon.
With a suggested construction start-up in 2014, the Heppner Wind Energy Project would consist of 310 giant wind turbines on 60,000 acres of private land south and east of Heppner.
It would produce 502 megawatts of energy, enough to power 125,000 homes, while leaving some rural Morrow County wheat farmers and landowners awash in fresh cash. Property owners sometimes earn $6,000 a year per turbine in lease payments.
Still, the days are long past when wind turbines meet with universal approval.
“I don’t want them anywhere near my place,” said Mike Frink, 55, owner of a home 18 miles southeast of Heppner in the Blue Mountain foothills.
He fears having to trade his scenic values for a forest of industrial-style rolled-steel wind towers. Frink also worries about golden eagle flyways and nests near his 13 acres.
“I would hope they do an extensive study of the wildlife up there, especially the eagles,” he said.
But the real wild card is the federal production tax credit program, which expires Dec. 31, and without which fewer wind energy projects are likely to be built in Oregon, industry watchers say.
“That is an important element in making some of them economically viable,” said Todd R. Cornett, siting division administrator for the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council.
The federal program provides a 2.2 cent-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit incentive for alternative energy wind projects for the first 10 years of power production from utility-scale turbines.
Congress probably won’t vote to renew it until after the November election, said Marchant Wentworth, spokesman for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C., a clean energy advocacy group.
The Senate Finance Committee voted 19-5 in favor of a one-year, $900 million extension last week, but the Senate and House must make the final decision to renew.
Congress has seesawed in its attitude toward the credit, originally part of the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Lawmakers have allowed it to sunset three times.
The program has come under criticism over cost, opposition to wind towers’ visual footprint, impacts of the turbines on bird and wildlife habitat and a shortage of transmission lines to move renewable power.
November’s presidential election could tip the balance: President Obama favors alternative energy while Gov. Mitt Romney has voiced opposition to extending the tax credit, Wentworth said.
The Oregon business energy tax credit ended last October, putting a further damper on wind development, said Lisa Joyce, spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Energy. It had provided tax credits of up to $10 million per project, but played a less significant role than federal tax credits, she said.
Alissa Krinsky, spokeswoman for Heppner developer Invenergy LLC of Chicago, declined to say whether Invenergy will proceed if the federal tax credit ends.
The Heppner project would generate about 100 jobs in Morrow County during the sixth-month construction phase and up to 30 permanent jobs afterward, Krinsky said.
Invenergy filed a notice of intent in April to submit a site certificate application and has two years to complete that process, said Sue Oliver, another state Energy Department spokeswoman. The project would include a 230-kilovolt transmission line that would extend up to 46 miles along a route that hasn’t been selected yet.
Earlier, Invenergy developed the 72-megawatt Willow Creek Wind Farm on the boundary of Gilliam and Morrow counties.
The uncertainty surrounding the federal tax credit on wind projects hasn’t affected the workload of the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council. Among wind projects proposed:
— A 550-megawatt project by Rock Creek Wind Power LLC in Gilliam County. The applicant petitioned the siting council for an extension of its notice of intent, and it will be reviewed Aug. 24.
— A 564-megawatt project by Saddle Butte Wind LLC in Morrow and Gilliam counties.
— A 500-kilovolt Boardman-to-Hemingway electrical transmission line by Idaho Power Co., to cross Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Baker and Malheur counties. Potential new routes are being evaluated to avoid sage grouse habitat.
— A notice of intent is expected soon from Diversified Wind and Games to build a 900-megawatt wind project in Morrow and Gilliam counties.
“Business is good for us,” said Cornett, the siting division administrator. “There is a lot coming in. We certainly have quite a few in the pipeline in the early stages of the process.”
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