Growers find economic stability in wind
Farmers praise turbine company for being flexible, cooperative
By JOHN O'CONNELL
AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho -- Edith and Richard Kopp attest that uncertainty characterizes the life of a dryland farmer. In the 32 years that they've been married, they've ended several growing seasons in the red.
"You operate on borrowed money for a whole year, and if you're lucky, at the end of the year there's a little bit left over for you," Edith said.
This fall, however, they'll start benefiting from a more stable income stream. In addition to wheat and feed barley, their land will yield electricity. The Kopps are among the growers who will reap royalties from one of two separate wind projects in the works in Power County.
The East Coast company CG Power is finishing the final three of 18 265-foot turbines on the open hills near American Falls. The company will operate seven turbines on the Kopps' land, with the remaining turbines covering fields owned by two other farmers and the state of Idaho. The turbine model is the largest in use in the United States and is designed to produce 2.5 megawatts of energy.
The Farm Service Agency hasn't completed the measurements to determine crop losses caused by the turbines, but Edith expects a minimal amount of acreage will be taken out of production.
"(Power) is a very lucrative crop compared to dry farming," Edith said. "You're dependent on weather. You're dependent on snow in the winter. You're dependent on how much rain you have."
PacifiCorp has already constructed a substation on the Kopps' land to serve the project.
Ironically, the high-voltage transmission lines crossing the Kopps' property, which they had considered a nuisance, made the opportunity possible.
"They're connecting this project to existing transmission lines," Edith said. "For all of these years we've had to farm around all of these power poles, and we're finally getting some benefit."
Initially, the Kopps were concerned that construction of the turbines would interfere with their harvest. The company has been flexible and that hasn't happened, Edith said. Furthermore, she said the roads built to access the towers are proving useful for harvesting equipment.
Kryst Krein, who farms 1,000 acres of irrigated wheat, corn and potatoes in the Neeley area near American Falls, is among the growers benefiting from another project advanced by Ridgeline Energy, involving 44 wind turbines capable of producing 1.8 megawatts of power.
Four turbines are located on Krein's land, and he receives a royalty equal to 4 percent of the total power sales.
Krein estimated the project will take about 2 acres of his land out of production. A pair of turbines will block his pivot irrigation system, but the company has strategically located the access roads along the strip of land that will be left dry.
He said he's heard few complaints from neighbors, and he's been pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the towers.
"When I first did this I did it for the financial reasons," Krein said. "I wasn't really excited about seeing a bunch of windmills pop all over. It's kind of funny. Now that they're up, I kind of like them. They're kind of neat looking."
Under the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, investor-owned utilities face a federal mandate to purchase energy from any small, renewable projects. Interest in wind power has skyrocketed in recent years, said Idaho Power spokeswoman Stephanie McCurdy.
"It's absolutely growing," McCurdy said. "We currently are purchasing energy from wind farms that equal 395 megawatts. We have committed contracts with additional wind projects totaling 363 megawatts, and those are expected to come on line between now and the end of 2012."