by Thomas P. Caldwell
ALEXANDRIA — Following this town's rejection of an initial agreement with the Wild Meadows Wind Farm, and a similar decision from the Danbury Board of Selectmen this week, opponents of the project were rejoicing, although they recognized that the project is not dead yet. The N.H. Site Evaluation Committee is unlikely to approve the project by Iberdrola Renewables over the town's objections, but there is still room for an agreement, as Iberdrola officials emphasized after learning of the decision.
"We look forward to continued discussion and work with the leaders and citizens of Alexandria with the goal of giving the town a clear picture of the benefits that will come to Alexandria and the region with this local investment," said Iberdrola Communications Manager Paul Copleman.
Local approval is not the only obstacle to this and other wind projects. On Jan. 1, the federal production tax credit expired, an incentive that has spurred the development of wind power and which, when it lapsed briefly in 2012, resulted in a 96 percent decline in new installations, according to Jesse Jenkins, a graduate student and researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wind farm opponents say the tax credit unfairly promotes wind energy over other forms of energy production and forces residents to pay for a technology they dislike. Copleman, however, points out that the PTC also supports solar, biomass, and other renewable energy sources in New Hampshire and that conventional sources of generation have received many times more in incentives.
"Since 1950, 70 percent of all energy subsidies have gone to fossil fuels," Copleman pointed out. "Fossil fuels in their start-up period got five times more in government incentives than renewable energy has, and nuclear got 10 times as much."
Copleman also pointed out that the PTC is granted in short-term increments, "compared to the permanent subsidies embedded in the tax code that have been enjoyed by other sources of generation for decades. The PTC is a performance-based tax credit, not a subsidy, as it only applies to actual renewable energy produced and delivered to the power grid. It drove more than $25 billion in private investment in 2012 in the U.S."
Despite lobbying for an extension of the PTC, its expiration does not immediately pose problems for the wind industry, due to a "safe harbor" provision in the tax code. The Internal Revenue Service ruled that, in general, "Construction of a facility will be considered as having begun on January 1, 2014, if (1) a taxpayer pays or incurs ... five percent or more of the total cost of the facility ... before January 1, 2014, and (2) thereafter, the taxpayer makes continuous efforts to advance towards completion of the facility."
"Should we receive a permit from the SEC," Copleman said, "we believe Wild Meadows would qualify for the recently expired PTC under the rules laid out by the Treasury Department."
As to the question of whether wind projects could exist without the incentive, Copleman said, "Wind energy is increasingly viable and competitive all over the country. The reality is that wind energy is driving electricity prices down, as the wholesale price of wind has dropped 40 percent in the last four years. We are very open to a discussion about a level playing field. With all external costs accounted for, we are confident that modern wind farms like Wild Meadows will be suppliers of affordable energy and unprecedented sources of rural economic development."
He added, "As a clean, competitive, and homegrown source of energy, wind power has proven that it can deliver a significant new source of renewable power, and also generate new revenue for the landowners, towns, and the state."
According to the New York Times, the bulk of those opposing the extension of the PTC have been the generators of other forms of energy who fear that the additional energy from wind farms will depress the price of electricity, cutting into their profits and, in some cases, driving them out of business.
The Times quotes Don Nickles, an energy consultant who represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate from 1981 to 2005, as saying that, during the late-night hours when electric demand is low and wind production is high, the value of the kilowatt-hour on the open market is sometimes zero or below. That especially poses a problem for nuclear plants. Unlike coal and natural gas plants that can quickly reduce their output, nuclear plants cannot easily adjust their output and end up paying to generate electricity.
Another argument against wind power is that the economic savings over conventional power are less than expected due to the lowering price of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". The amount of money saved by using wind over natural gas is significantly less as fracking expands.
Fracking is controversial, however, and if subsidies are a concern, the Department of Energy is heavily supporting the new fracking technology. The Energy Department's new REMOTE initiative is spending millions to develop new technology to enable cost-effective gas extraction in outlying fields.
"If you're serious about the negative consequences of climate change, which is already affecting New Hampshire, then you understand the need for renewable energy that does not burn fossil fuels. Wind energy is far less harmful than energy sources it displaces, and reduces the air pollution associated with climate change, which represents a significant threat to quality of life issues here in New Hampshire," Copleman said.
To those who argue against wind energy because fossil fuels will still be needed, Copleman said, "Multiple statewide polls show strong support for renewable energy and a willingness to tackle climate change. With a stable and consistent regulatory environment, we are optimistic that New Hampshire can continue to be a leader in meeting New England's renewable power needs.
"We understand that not everyone will like looking at them, but only four percent of the area within 10 miles of the project will be able to see it at all. The closest turbine to Newfound Lake will be about 3.8 miles away and to Cardigan Mountain would be four miles. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and we talk to people all the time who find them graceful and majestic, and are thankful for the economic and environmental benefits they deliver."
In response to arguments that more wind towers will reduce property values, Copleman cited a comprehensive study by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which examined more than 50,000 homes near 67 wind farms in 27 counties in nine states. The study found "no statistical evidence that operating wind turbines have [sic] had any measurable impact on home sales prices."
"The University of New Hampshire's Whittemore School of Business studied property values near the Lempster Wind Farm," Copleman said, "and found no effect from the wind turbines. New Hampshire Public Radio reported in November 2012 that four Realtors® they contacted in and around Lempster say their experiences confirm the UNH study.
"The State of New Hampshire has reviewed property value claims previously and found no basis for concern. In addition, as part of the Wild Meadows SEC application, we provided another study of New Hampshire property values, updating the earlier UNH study of Lempster and also evaluating data for the Groton area," Copleman said.
As for the local opponents to the Wild Meadows project, they are mobilizing to take the fight to Concord.