April 20, 2024

Money Blows in to a Patch of Oregon Known for Its Unrelenting Winds

In this sparsely populated landscape south of the Columbia River Gorge, annual checks for that amount are local residents’ share of a windfall brought by the growing wind energy industry. In an area otherwise dominated by wheat farms, hundreds of 300-foot wind turbines now generate electricity and cash.

“Wind is the only thing that is going to save rural Oregon,” said Judge Gary Thompson of Sherman County Court, “especially since all the timber is gone and the sawmills and all that are closing down. I think what it is is a breath of fresh air.”

The Columbia Gorge has been like an expressway for hard-blowing wind since long before the turbines arrived. Trees here lean to the east from the gusts that rip across the plateau.

Sherman County, which earned $315,000 in property taxes from the first wind farm in 2002, raked in $3 million from wind farms in 2010. The bounty, while mostly flowing to the farmers who lease their land for the turbines, also benefits the public. Taxes, fees and assessments on more than 1,000 megawatts of wind turbine capacity have brought $17.5 million in nine years to a county with just 1,735 residents.

The county’s four towns — Wasco, Moro, Rufus and Grass Valley — are prospering. At Sherman Junior/Senior High School in Moro, wind money paid for new computers, musical instruments, robotics equipment, portions of a greenhouse and a new teacher to instruct the most gifted of its 124 students last year.

“Right now, when many districts around the state are gutting everything, we don’t have to,” said Ivan Ritchie, superintendent of the Sherman County School District and principal of Sherman Elementary School in Grass Valley.

Judge Thompson said the payments were intended to reward residents who have made no financial gains from wind energy development, but whose views of Mount Adams and the county’s stunning landscape now include a panorama of turbines.

“It’s modeled after a lot of Alaska compensation,” Judge Thompson said. “There are a lot of people who live in the county who are not necessarily going to benefit from the renewable energy, and we felt we needed to share it with all the county residents.”

Such dividends were once unique to Alaska, where residents receive annual payments as a share of the revenue from oil flowing through the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Every Sherman County head of household who has owned property for more than a year qualifies to receive money. Though the county can afford more, Judge Thompson said it decided to keep the checks lower than $600 to spare two clerks from having to file hundreds of related tax forms.

Kathy McCullough, a former commercial airline pilot, said she found the wind intolerable when she first settled here 23 years ago. Her husband, Kevin, farms wheat on 8,000 acres. Mr. McCullough, whose family has been on the land for generations, said his parents had once tethered a rope between the house and the barn so they could find their way when dust was blowing.

“We absolutely hated waking up some days because the wind blows all the time,” Mrs. McCullough said. “It’s like living in a wind tunnel. You can see how the pioneer women went crazy out here. Now you wake up and the wind is blowing and it’s like, yes!”

The McCulloughs’ earn 4.1 percent of the gross revenue from 15 wind turbines on their property, or about $5,500 a year for each turbine. The payments increase over time, as land values inflated by the turbines decline with their age.

Gorge communities benefit from their nearness to power transmission lines that connect to California. Until 2010, Oregon also offered attractive incentives for wind companies, allowing tax credits of up to $11 million toward wind farms costing $20 million or more, credits that could be sold before construction for cash. Counties like Sherman also have the authority to waive millions in local property taxes, negotiating lower taxes in exchange for special fees and payments.

Critics say that the incentives are overly generous and that they take money from hard-pressed state budgets. In Sherman County, however, the arrangement has helped build a library and two new city halls, sewers and a bridge.

Residents say the biggest challenge brought by the wind industry is simple jealousy. Because the northern part of the county is windier, some farmers in the south feel shorted.

A corporation, Praise the Wind, served as the vehicle for northern farmers looking to attract wind developers. After securing the rights to blocks of land, Praise the Wind negotiated leases, building in provisions like weed control, fencing and penalties for crop damage. The corporation now manages payments and acts as a liaison with the wind companies.

“The opportunity for wind development is going to be what helps agriculture continue in these agricultural areas,” said Cheryl Woods, Praise the Wind’s chief financial officer, “because it’s getting more and more expensive to farm and the margin is getting narrower and narrower.” Ms. Woods said annual royalty payments of between $5,500 and $7,800 per turbine have saved some farms.

The turbines have also meant more jobs, officials say. The Columbia Gorge Community College has retooled its electrical engineering department into a renewable energy technician program that has trained 135 students from Sherman and surrounding counties. Judge Thompson said the industry was now Sherman County’s largest employer.

At Kathy Neihart’s Lean-To Cafe and Goose Pit Saloon in Wasco, construction workers and wind technicians have kept her business alive, she said. Two years ago, the restaurant and bar appeared headed for closing. Now, it is out of debt and Ms. Neihart has bought a car.

“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “It’s just a fabulous, happy pile of money.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=968bfa465291c4ea0af771a7e6154a27

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