Wind could be next great farming subsidy

Puget Sound Energy deal shows another example of wind energy symbiosis with farmers.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
Wind turbines placed on Texas farmland collectively offer a 781.5-megawatt capacity. E.ON Climate & Renewables

Puget Sound Energy announced Wednesday it's beginning construction of its 343-megawatt Lower Snake River Wind Project in Garfield County, Wash.

The project will consist of 149 jumbo 2.3-megawatt wind turbines that will come from wind turbine manufacturer Siemens. When fully operational, they're expected to supply enough energy for 100,000 homes annually.

The project is not a one-site wind farm but--similar to the $1 billion wind energy complex in Texas--will be a connected system of turbines across various private lands.

About 40,000 acres of farmland will be utilized with farmers receiving energy royalty payments, as well as lease fees for the use of their land. Once the installation of the turbines is complete, 98 percent of the farmland on which the turbines sit will be able to be farmed as normal, according to PSE.

The Puget Sound deal confirms a trend. Partnerships between the wind energy industry and farmers are gaining traction across the U.S. With land lease rights for state and federal lands often hard to secure, wind energy developers have been looking elsewhere and have found the agricultural industry it would seem. States appear willing to foster the partnership as a way to attract wind turbine manufacturers and developers, while aiding their fledgling farming industries.

Windustry.org, a farmer-based wind energy nonprofit group that runs the blog of the same name, estimates that farmers earn about "$2,500 to $5,000 per turbine, $3,000 to $4,000 per megawatt of capacity, or 2-4% of gross revenues."

Ohio residents have been in a battle over how to tax the property of energy utilities, and also passed a per-megawatt flat tax for wind and solar development. In the course of that political battle it's been asserted that Ohio farmers stand to earn an estimated $9.3 million in annual lease payments in exchange for hosting turbines on their land, according to Wind and Solar Jobs for Ohio, a coalition of wind energy industry companies.

Iowa, which leads the nation in obtaining the largest percentage of electricity from wind energy, gets 14 percent of its electricity from wind. That's no coincidence. As far back as 2003, Iowa utility MidAmerican Energy, a company controlled by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, was partnering with Iowa farmers to install hundreds of jumbo wind turbines across the state.

Those involved in the Roscoe, Texas, wind complex, which consists of 627 wind turbines providing a 781.5-megawatt capacity over 100,000 acres of land, were very clear on the topic. Without the willing participation of over 300 landowners spanning across four counties agreeing to host turbines, a wind complex of that scale might not have been possible.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has been a proponent of such partnerships for a while. At the American Wind Energy Association Conference in June 2008 he offered his state's mega wind farm as a successful example of the wind energy industry and agricultural industry partnering to mutual benefit.

"I'm especially encouraged by the fact that many families in rural Texas, whose grip on their land was slipping because of the rising cost of farming and ranching, can now keep their land because of revenues from hosting wind turbine towers," Perry said.

The federal government has also been on board though with little notice. The U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Rural Energy for America Program has offered grants and promotions for individual farmers using renewable resources like wind turbines for over a decade.