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Wind energy debate sweeps Statehouse

Wind energy debate sweeps Statehouse

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BOISE — The eastern and southern parts of Idaho have drawn battle lines in the wind energy debate.

Opponents of wind energy, primarily from eastern Idaho, say that the state needs to slow down and develop a clearer plan that takes into account issues like the impact on nearby homeowners, the environment and utility rates.

Industry supporters say there would be a loss of jobs and tax revenues, particularly in the Magic Valley, where the China Mountain Wind Project is slated for southern Twin Falls County and the College of Southern Idaho has a wind energy training program.

The conflict has led to the creation of two bills in the Legislature. One would extend the sales tax rebate on the equipment used for renewable energy projects, which began in 2005. Without an extension, the rebate will expire June 30.

The other would put a two-year moratorium on new projects, but allow construction to continue on those that already have permits.

“It has quite an impact when you’re talking about the highest buildings in Idaho,” said Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, and the sponsor of the moratorium bill, on Friday in the House State Affairs Committee.

Scott Vanevenhoven of Idaho Falls spoke before the committee on Friday, representing Idahoans for Responsible Wind Energy, a grassroots group of residents concerned about the industry’s rapid growth.

He raised concerns about wind energy not being a constant, reliable source of power and criticized the state and federal subsidies the industry receives. He also questioned whether giving notification for proposals only to those within 300 feet of a project site is acceptable, given the towering height of turbines.

Steve Priebe of Idaho Falls echoed that concern. He said he wasn’t aware of a wind turbine project near his home until he returned from a vacation to find a dozen turbines in the surrounding landscape.

For the China Mountain project, a moratorium would halt an effort that’s seen years of planning.

“That means that our project will be put on hold even though we were hoping to start construction next year,” said Suzanne Leta Liou, development manager of RES America Developments Inc., the project’s lead company.

Liou also pointed to the project’s benefits, which include 749 construction jobs, 46 permanent jobs and local and state tax revenues.

Bill Block, the husband of Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, testified against the moratorium.

Block, vice president of J-U-B Engineers in Twin Falls, said the China Mountain project developers have provided his company with a $300,000 contract and hired local workers.

He drew a distinction between eastern Idaho opponents and the project’s support in the Magic Valley.

“I don’t think there’s any need to reach out and include the whole state,” he said. “There is no emergency in Twin Falls County.”

Three students in CSI’s wind energy program also testified, saying that they want to work in Idaho when they graduate, not move out of the state.

Jon Barrow, a CSI wind energy student from Rigby, is scheduled to graduate in May.

“It’s been in the works for two years to get to where I am, and to have something like this come in is devastating to my potential career,” he said. “It may mean I may have to look to other states.”

Ben Botkin may be reached at bbotkin@magicvalley.com.

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