The fledgling American wind power industry got a major boost recently from the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers extended a tax credit in March that has helped to keep existing wind energy projects profitable, and encouraged new investments in this clean, unlimited source of electric power.
Renewable energy advocates had fought long and hard for the credit but congress didn't act until the politically influential agriculture industry joined the lobbying effort. Even as earnings from traditional crop and livestock sales have fallen to historic lows, American farmers and ranchers have discovered they can earn money from wind power. As a result, they've put their political muscle behind this emerging industry.
The federal wind power tax credit that Congress passed last March was a key factor in the decision by Vestas Wind Systems, a major developer of wind turbines, to build a new production plant here in Oregon.
Oregon Senator Gordon Smith believes that without the agriculture lobby, it's doubtful whether his colleagues on Capitol Hill would have approved the credit. "Would it have happened, Senator Smith asked? "I'd like to say 'yes'. But it made certain that it happened when the Ag folks got playing the part as well. So they're due the credit. Politics is about addition not subtraction, so whenever you can get environmentalists and farmers togetheryou've got a very powerful coalition."
It's not often farmers and environmentalists find themselves on the same side of an issue. In this case, Rachel Shimshack with the Renewable Northwest Project, says the alliance formed out of circumstance. "It turns out," Ms. Shimshack said, "the best wind resources happen to be located in rural parts of our states."
And, she says, that's where farms and ranches are. "It just so happened that the representatives that are located in those places were the swing votes and those people pledged to help," she said. It's likely the alliance will endure.
Jean Wilkenson is a lobbyist for the private Oregon Farm Bureau. She says increased foreign competition and stubbornly low commodity prices in recent years have hit the U.S. agriculture industry hard, and farmers are looking for ways to earn some extra cash. They've found a good one, says Ms. Wilkenson, in wind power. "That is something new," she said. "In prior years, of course, farmers may not have known much about energy and electricity and power generation and certainly wind power generation."
But farmers have been learning quickly. Growers can earn, on average, about $2,000 per year from each windmill they permit power companies to build and operate on their farmland.
The only complaint some farmers have is that companies aren't willing to locate more windmills on their land. That's one reason agriculture is supporting legislation that would provide additional incentives for wind power developers. Now, with the support of farm groups, wind energy supporters are looking at new proposals to help the emerging industry.
Pat Egan, an advisor to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, says the state is considering a local tax credit that would be applied only if the federal credit were unavailable. "What that would do," Mr. Egan said, "is provide some stability in both the development side for projects and actually the manufacturing side as well, to make sure that the market is on-going and more stable."
Mr. Egan said the state also is considering ways to make it easier to site windmills. Currently, wind power facilities have to go through the same difficult siting process as coal-fired power plants that spew out tons of pollution each year. And he says he wouldn't be surprised to see the state legislature take up a bill in its next session, that would require utility companies to buy electricity from privately-owned wind generators and other renewable energy sources - a move that could add considerable momentum to the burgeoning wind power movement on America's farms and ranches.