Idaho's Economic Answer: Blowin' In the Wind

Giant wind farm gets permit from BLM


Boise-based Windland, Inc. working in partnership with Shell Wind Energy recently completed a four-year permitting process with the Bureau of Land Management to OK a massive wind turbine power project on BLM land in the Cotterel Mountains near Albion, Idaho. Once completed, the Cotterel Wind Power Project will comprise 98, 300-foot-tall towers equipped with swirling white propellers stretching along 14 miles of ridgeline. Cotterel will provide enough energy to power 50,000 homes, roughly the number of homes in Twin Falls and Jerome and Gooding counties combined. If completed, the project will be the largest wind farm built on federal lands in the last 25 years.

Mike Heckler of Windland, Inc. says he is "very pleased" with the completion of the BLM review. Before construction begins on the project, Windland faces the task of acquiring a power purchase agreement from one of three utility companies in the region; Idaho Power, Altavista, or Rocky Mountain Power.

"All three have expressed an interest in adding wind generation to their energy portfolios," says Heckler, who attributes the renewed interest in wind power to a recent increase in the cost of natural gas and rapid technological advances in wind turbine technology. According to Heckler, the huge and powerful 1.5 to 3.0 megawatt wind turbines planned for Cotterel, each capable of generating enough power for 500 homes, have only been available in the last six years.

Gerald Fleischman of the Idaho Energy Division counts 42 wind farm projects in various stages of development around the state with a combined potential output of 1,500-2,000 megawatts when completed.

"Many of these are on private lands and are in the 10-20 megawatt range. Most of them keep a pretty low profile," Fleischman says.

The BLM seems eager to spread word of Cotterel's permit, perhaps because it will help meet the goal set by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. That document calls on the secretary of the Interior to seek approval of projects on federal lands which generate 10,000 megawatts of energy from non-hydro-powered renewable sources, in the next nine years. The BLM estimates 3,200 megawatts of wind power are available in the nine Western states. Idaho ranks 13th in its potential for wind energy.

But despite the current interest in wind energy, Idaho Power's supply of energy comes primarily from hydropower, followed closely by natural gas and coal-fired power plant sources, according to Dennis Lopez.

Idaho Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett organized opposition last year to Sempra Energy's proposed coal-fired power plant, which would have provided 600 megawatts of power, one-third of Cotterel's capacity.

"We have enough wind to supply our new energy needs in Idaho," says Stennett. "I am hoping that Idaho will pursue a renewable energy portfolio, including wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. If utilities would consider our hydropower as a solid source of base-load capacity, we certainly would not have to rely on coal in the future."

Doing so, he adds, would require a quantum leap in thinking by the utilities companies. Wind power, Stennett admits, has a huge up-front cost, "but you don't have to wonder about the price of coal and oil 20 years down the road."

"These projects are also great for providing a tax base and some rural economic development," Stennett says.

Cotterel is expected to generate up to $12.5 million in local sales tax revenue once operations are fully underway. According to a BLM report, Cassia County could also benefit from property taxes on the project's $197 million in property improvements.