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The Wind Cries Money: Finding profits and positive vibes in micro wind farms 

Mike Costanti smiles as he cycles through digital images of Nome, Alaska's Banner Wind Project, completed in December 2008 by his company Western Community Energy.

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Mike Costanti smiles as he cycles through digital images of Nome, Alaska's Banner Wind Project, completed in December 2008 by his company Western Community Energy. It's the largest wind farm in Alaska and one that will help lessen Nome's annual dependence on diesel fuel by 200,000 gallons, and Costanti is proud WCE led the development efforts.

"I didn't approach this business wearing tie-dye and corduroy saying, 'Hey man, this is cool,'" Costanti said. "I was in Seattle in the late 1990s when the tech sector was growing and it was palpable - you could feel it growing, and the same thing is happening in renewable energy right now. We're on the cusp of a new economy."

Western Community Energy is one of a dozen so-called "green energy" companies headquartered here in Bend. Costanti founded WCE in October 2007 in Boseman, Mont. but moved the company to Bend last year to take advantage of the focus on the renewable-energy economy that continues to evolve in Central Oregon.

"When the wind energy industry was experiencing major corporate consolidation and seemed to be focusing only on massive wind farms capable of generating hundreds of megawatts of electricity, I recognized a niche," he said. "WCE's focus is to install wind turbines on property owned by private farmers, schools, cities, counties or other landowners -- work that allows the property owner to reap 50 percent of the profits from all electricity sold."

WCE confirmed $1.4 million in wind energy projects for 2008, and another $8.2 million in January. The company is also partnering with seven Oregon schools to erect smallerturbines as part of a project intended to teach communities about the benefits of wind energy.

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Revenue like that proves green energy is no longer an underground movement spearheaded by the likes of Willie Nelson and his biodiesel tour bus, or actor Ed Begley and his bicycle. Costanti and his eight employees seem positioned to become major players in the Pacific Northwest renewable energy sector during the next couple of years, and several reports back up the viability of wind energy as a major contributor to the total supply of electricity to U.S. households and industry.

The U.S. Department of Energy set a goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent during the next 11 years, and a whopping 80 percent by the year 2050. A study published last month by the Seattle-based Northwest Energy Coalition finds that more than three times the amount of existing renewable energy resources required to meet those goals exist in our region of the country, and cites wind energy in particular as having the greatest potential to play a major role in the realization of those ambitions. One portion of the study in particular highlights Central Oregon as a location that possesses enough open space, as well as the preferred weather conditions, for a single wind farm to produce enough energy to meet Oregon's goal of having 25 percent renewable energy on the grid by 2025.

Additionally, research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Wind Energy Technologies Program - conducted at the NREL - has led to the development of multi-megawatt wind turbines that are able to generate enough electricity, and at rates competitive with conventional energy sources, to immediately make wind energy a viable source of competition in the marketplace.

Of course, meeting future increases in demand for electricity, largely spurred on by the continued growth of the U.S. population, requires investment, and investment in wind energy, as well as overall energy efficiency, will lead to the creation of new jobs while drastically reducing, if not eliminating, the need to import fuel from overseas, according to the Northwest Energy Coalition report.

Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon, said Costanti's approach to community investment provides substantial opportunities to create new sources of income for individuals, municipalities, schools, tribes, and utility districts in Central Oregon - all plus factors in the current stagnant economy.

"The company has a model unique in the industry," Lee said. "We like that WCE partners with landowners in equity arrangements, allowing local communities to keep more of the income generated (through wind energy). By focusing on small- to mid-sized community projects, we believe WCE will continue to find substantial opportunities for growth."

Costanti is also sitting on a potential windfall for his company in the form of tax credits. The $787 billion American Recovery and Investment Act uncapped the small wind turbine Investment Tax Credit, allowing developers to receive a 30 percent credit on profits but get back the 30 percent in cash rather than as a deduction. The grants will be administered through a federal program led by the U.S. Treasury Department. According to a study completed by New Energy Finance, a New York-based renewable energy analyst company, the tax credits will pave the way for large tax-equity investors, that before were only comfortable backing large-scale wind farms, to begin investing in smaller, community-based projects.

"There are overseas tax credits available too, but that's not who we are and what we believe in," Costanti said. "We want to add to the economic value of Central Oregon and our state. We're going to be hiring 11 people in the coming weeks and we want them all to be locals. And we are working with community banks to help finance new projects that will put revenue into the hands of local people and the local economy by developing small-scale wind farms on private land, and partnering with those land owners in the sale of the electricity generated on their property."

The Blowback

Despite, or maybe because of, its spectacular growth in recent years, many people are taking a more critical look at large scale wind farms. In addition to visual impacts, neighbors have cited concerns about round the clock noise from turbines and one researcher has coined a new term to describe ailments associated with exposure to it, "wind turbine syndrome," according to a recent story in the Oregonian. Meanwhile environmentalists are urging regulators to take a closer look at where they allow new wind farms to be sited because of concerns about impact on wildlife, including birds that are threatened by turbine blades and criss-crossing networks of transmission lines. Habitat fragmentation can also impact large game animals that don't do well with industrial complexes.

One wind power project has already gone by the wayside in Oregon, at least temporarily, because of concerns about environmental impacts. Backers of a large-scale wind farm project adjacent to the Steens national monument in Harney County withdrew their application for the project earlier this year in the face of opposition from environmental groups including the Audubon Society.

However opponents say they expect the project to be resubmitted after Harney County finishes updating its applicable planning rules, presumably in favor of the applicant. - Eric Flowers

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