Rural residents worry about impact of turbines

BERNAL, NEW MEXICO - Petite, gray-haired Sally Maestas remembers a time when this tiny rural village 50 miles east of Santa Fe along Interstate 25 didn't have electricity. "We used kerosene lanterns when I was growing up," said Maestas, 79.

She witnessed the coming of electric lines powered by coal. Now, on the mesa overlooking Bernal, a Chicago-based company wants to put up dozens of wind turbines, each more than 30 stories high from base to blade tip. The power will be shipped six miles away to a power line supplying cities across the West.

"The energy could be OK," Maestas said, "but I guess it's not (coming) here."

More turbines are in windy New Mexico's future, making many renewable energy advocates cheer.

They note wind energy is far cleaner and almost as cheap as electricity from coal-fired power plants. Wind energy companies tout the revenue and jobs generated for cash-strapped rural counties.

But a battle is brewing over where wind energy facilities should be built in New Mexico, and the first battleground is in rural villages.

Retired plasterer Keely Meagan lives a few miles from Maestas on top of the mesa. If the wind turbines are placed there, she'll be able to see most of them from the solar-powered home she built. It's not their towering size that worries Meagan so much as the potential for other negative impacts if the turbines aren't sited properly. She's concerned New Mexico is joining a nationwide rush into wind energy without making sure communities are protected and without questioning whether large-scale wind farms are the best option for the future.

Until 1999, the only wind turbines in New Mexico were windmills pumping up water on isolated ranches. Now there are four major wind farms — located in the southeastern part of the state — with the capacity to power thousands of homes when the wind blows.

"Wind power is a clean, inexhaustible domestic resource," said Michael McDiarmid, wind program manager for the New Mexico Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department. "I think it's important for our energy future to have more wind energy."

Wind energy's rise in the nation has been meteoric, though it is still a tiny slice of the nation's overall energy supply. Last year, more than a third of the new power added to the electric grid was from wind energy, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Currently, about 5 million U.S. homes are powered in part by wind.

The Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy says wind is one of the cheapest renewable energy sources currently available and the "most likely candidate at present for large, green-power programs in New Mexico."

Besides the wind farm proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy in San Miguel County, one is proposed for the broad sage plateau west of Taos. Other wind energy facilities are planned on more than 530,000 acres of state trust lands and on private land in southeastern New Mexico.

The state ranks 12th in the U.S. in potential wind energy capacity, with 49,700 megawatts possible. Under state regulations, utility companies in New Mexico must produce 20 percent of total energy needs from renewable resources by 2020, at least 20 percent of it from wind.

Wind power may be clean, but a big factor attracting major energy companies and investors is the chance to make a profit. Tax incentives and the increasingly competitive wholesale price of wind compared to coal or natural gas makes wind facilities worth building, McDiarmid said.

All that revenue might be nice for companies, but electricity-rate payers in low-income communities such as Bernal and villages in El Valle on the mesa's west side wonder what's in it for them when a wind power company such as Invenergy comes knocking at the door. "This feels like a big company coming into a small community to make money. We get all of the ramifications and none of the benefits," said Gloria Gonzales, a community organizer who lives at the base of the mesa near Ribera.

A giant wind turbine turns gracefully on Argonne Mesa, southwest of Santa Rosa in Guadalupe County, creating a steady swoosh as each of its three blades pass the tower. A row of turbines stretches along the mesa top for miles, glowing white in the sun.

In the wind farm's operations facility at the base of the mesa, maintenance technician Russ Sanford said he likes his job. "There are great opportunities, good pay, and it's steady work," he said.

And it lets him stay in Santa Rosa, where he's lived most of his life.

Sanford, a former electrician, trained through Mitsubishi to work at the Argonne Mesa facility. Most of the eight other men he works with are from nearby towns.

The lure of good paying jobs for local people in job-short rural towns is an attraction that wind energy companies promote.

Cash for county coffers is another.

Andy Madrid, Guadalupe County's manager, said the county will receive $4.3 million over a 30-year period from the Argonne Mesa Wind Facility's first phase, while the local school district will make another $1.9 million in that time. A new phase now under construction will mean more revenue.

Madrid said Santa Rosa doubled its gross-receipts-tax revenue in a year and a half during the wind facility's construction. The money was used to upgrade buildings and leverage matching funds for new buildings. "It has a very big impact," Madrid said.

In San Miguel County, Oliver Perea, president of the San Miguel del Bado Land Grant Association, whose members own land around El Valle, said if the Invenergy wind project really benefited the residents, he wouldn't oppose it. "But right now, there are more cons than pros," he said.

Debates are raging within environmental circles about what is really "green" energy. Those who point out potential problems with wind power facilities are slammed as NIMBYs (people who say Not In My Back Yard). "We are in the position where the 'burden of proof' is upon us in an area and time when everyone who uses the word green (and wind) is good," said Pamela Rosenburg, a resident of an off-grid community in Taos County that opposes a proposed nearby wind energy farm.

Meagan, the plasterer, once visited a wind farm in Kansas and found it graceful and quiet. "I'm such a supporter of renewable energy that I never thought there could be anything wrong with it," she said.

But when a slender tower to measure wind speed was installed near her property two years ago and she found out about the Invenergy project, she and other neighbors in the valley began researching large-scale wind farms. What they found out disturbed them: Noise, flashing lights at night, impacts on wildlife and dramatically changed landscapes are all issues other people living near wind farms have dealt with, and scientists are trying to evaluate.

The wind energy industry says many of those concerns date to older wind technology and new turbines create few problems. Mark Jacobson, Invenergy's business development director, said the company has faced opposition over the same issues in many places where the company proposed wind farms, but in general, residents grew to see the benefits.

Jim Cummings, founder of the Santa Fe-based Acoustic Ecology Institute, said wind proponents "slip into WARYDU (We Are Right; You Don't Understand) rhetoric. If we are to forge a reliable energy future that is respectful of both the environment and the rights of neighbors, we'll need to move past knee-jerk reactions on both sides," he said.

In a 2006 report on the benefits of wind to rural communities, Invenergy said three things are needed for siting wind turbines: willing landowners, a steady wind at 264 feet above ground and an available transmission line.

What's not required in New Mexico is approval from any state agency if the project is on private land — meaning little oversight of wind farms takes place.

The state's Public Regulation Commission only gets involved if a wind farm is larger than 300 megawatts, and to date, none have been that large. On state trust land, the State Land Office makes prospective wind farm companies go through an application process and meet county ordinances.

In New Mexico and most states, it's up to the counties, and few have ordinances geared specifically to wind farms. San Miguel County approved a wind farm ordinance in 2003, probably the state's first. Invenergy's project is the test case. "This one could be a template," said the county's planning director, Alex Tafoya. "Or we might find out it isn't worth a darn."

Hugh Ley, a former San Miguel County commissioner, said it is critical for counties to have specific ordinances for wind energy facilities. "Otherwise they will be making arbitrary and capricious decisions based on which way the wind is blowing," he said.

Last year, the National Academies, an interdisciplinary group of scientists who advise the federal government, examined wind farm impacts in the mid-Atlantic states and concluded that governments need better guidelines for evaluating wind projects and advising developers.

Agencies and counties are trying to catch up.

The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are both revising their recommendations for wind turbine placement based on new information about the impacts on wildlife.

Torrance County recently adopted a wind ordinance, and Union County has one in the works. But most counties handle applications for wind farms under existing land-use ordinances.

Without a more critical look at placement, some worry about what will be lost.

"Renewable energy is not free energy," said Bill Dolson, a pilot, computer engineer and landscape artist in El Valle. "All energy has a cost. In the case of wind energy, that cost is the destruction of the rural landscape on a national level if measures are not put into place to regulate the placement of wind facilities."

Residents of communities in El Valle think a wider conversation about wind energy is needed around the state.

They formed a group and last week hosted a well-attended meeting in Santa Fe to discuss wind energy. They've met with Gov. Bill Richardson and House Speaker Ben Luján, with the help of actor and neighbor Val Kilmer, to talk about the need for better wind-energy regulations.

Some renewable energy advocates say as the state and the nation consider new energy sources, it is a prime time to rethink the entire energy grid. Simply building large-scale wind power systems located far from customers to replace equally remote coal-fired power plants might not be the answer.

"I am not anti-wind, but I have questions about big towers and the industrial wind farm approach," Meagan said. "It is important to do this carefully, thoughtfully and do it right the first time. We may not have a second chance."


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