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The wind is blowing, let's try not to get swept away

Wind power is a growing enterprise around the world and by many accounts, this "gold rush" might be coming soon to a county near you.

Actually, we know there's at least one company working to establish a large wind farm on the east end of Hughes County. The promises are great. There will be hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxable property added to the county tax base. Farmers and ranchers will get many thousands of dollars' worth of lease payments after signing an easement for the use of an acre or two of land for up to 30 years. Tax dollars and cash payments, we're told, will flow like milk and honey.

That's a bit of hyperbole but, generally, the folks behind wind power projects do tend to promise quite a lot. They are, after all, hoping to cash in on what is essentially an unlimited resource. We're talking billions of dollars on the line here. As more states move to require that more and more of the electricity their citizens use come from "renewable sources," there will be even more money on the line. That assumes there isn't some other energy revolution sometime in the next few decades or that nuclear power doesn't undergo a renaissance.

In the short term, the giant multinational corporations with the means to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on building the hundreds of turbines it takes to approximate the electrical-generating capacity of a single coal or gas power plant are trying desperately to get as many projects going as possible before a tax credit expires in 2019. The credit gives wind-power producers a break on the profits they make from selling the electricity they generate. Many more millions of dollars are on the line in the case of this Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit.

The rush to get wind-power projects into construction means South Dakota, which has heretofore found itself lagging behind other wind-rich states, has become the focus of many new wind projects. There are 25 proposed and two pending wind farms in the state. Each project covers hundreds, if not thousands of acres. Their size and expense should cause all of us a bit of concern.

For one thing, South Dakota doesn't have good rules on who is responsible for tearing down turbines that are no longer used. A developer is required to submit a plan to the state Public Utilities Commission, but there is no decommissioning bond requirement. Instead, the commission can choose to require a bond on a case-by-case basis.

A single turbine, some estimates suggest, can cost more than $25,000 to decommission, when you subtract the salvage value of its pieces and parts from the total cost. Using this estimate on the project proposed in eastern Hughes county, the cost to decommission the project would range between $3.7 million and $5 million.

What, if any, is the state's or a landowner's legal recourse if, in 10, 20 or 30 years, a wind-power company is forced to shut down and can't sell its turbines or afford to take them down? Has anyone asked? We've seen taxpayers on the hook for cleaning up old mining operations whose former owners went bankrupt.

On the topic of natural resources, states to the east such as Minnesota and Iowa who dived whole hog into wind farms didn't have much in the way of native prairie left when the wind turbines came. Pretty much every inch of arable land there had already fallen to the plow. There wasn't much to be concerned about when it came to disturbing grassland habitats.

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In South Dakota, we run the risk of impacting many struggling species, mostly birds, which require large, mostly undisturbed grasslands to survive. Greater prairie chickens are just one species who might be impacted and are already declining in most of their current range. There are many song birds, too, that could be affected by the 500-foot turbine towers.

While the impact on birds is bad, what could and likely would be worse is what happens if and when wind farms help drive a species toward the federal endangered-species list. When that happens, everyone will face the consequences. This scenario is not as unlikely as it first may seem.

Oklahoma, Texas and western Kansas, thanks in no small part to the rapid expansion of wind farms, now are facing the prospect of the lesser prairie chicken being placed on the endangered-species list. An invasive tree species as well as oil-and-gas development played a role in the lesser prairie chicken's plight but unless something changes, ranchers, wind developers and oilmen all will find themselves hamstrung by the endangered-species act within a few years.

We also can look to the debacle surrounding sage grouse, which require massive tracts of undisturbed sagebrush habitats. Energy development, including wind power, has played a large role in that species' decline. It took the threat of the endangered-species act for states and industry leaders to get on board with conservation efforts.

In both the case of the lesser prairie chickens and of sage grouse, no one stopped to think about when and where to develop until the endangered-species act was invoked. It is almost always advisable to avoid trouble rather than to rush headlong into it. Right now, it feels like we're rushing headlong into it.

The problem of harming a grassland bird or having to decommission a wind farm may feel far off, but if we want to avoid potentially serious problems down the line, we've got to answer these questions now. We need to take a measured approach on wind development and as a state, we should look for ways to hold developers accountable for their actions when the time comes.

— Pierre Capital Journal

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