While attention recently has been focused on the possible CREZ transmission line coming through Mason County, little has been said about an industrial wind farm development that is being considered here. Twelve individuals or families with property in Mason and Menard Counties have signed Memorandums of Wind Energy Lease and Agreement with Mason Mountain Wind Project, LLC, which is affiliated with a California based company, Padoma Wind Power, LLC. The farms and ranches that have signed up as part of this Mason Mountain Wind Project presently total almost 14,000 acres and are located in an area stretching from south of where Highway 87 North passes over Mason Mountain west to near Long Mountain.
Information published in a February 2010 monthly status report to ERCOT, the electric grid manager for most of Texas, indicates that an interconnection study is underway for a 170 MW (megawatt) wind project in Mason County with a "Commercial Operation Date" of December 2010. An interconnection study is done by ERCOT when an electric power generating entity seeks permission to connect into the electric grid. The study does not indicate the size of the wind turbines to be used in the project, but if it uses the 1.5 MW sized wind turbines similar to those used in other Texas wind projects, we could be looking at over one hundred (100) turbines towering above the northwestern part of the county.
These Memorandums of Wind Energy Lease and Agreement are filed in the deed records of the Mason County Clerk’s office and are recorded notices of private lease agreements signed by landowners. They give the names of the land owners and wind power developer, describe the properties that are being leased, and give some of the details of the actual lease agreements. Padoma Wind Power, LLC was formerly owned by NRG Energy, Inc. and was recently purchased by Enel North America, Inc. Enel North America is a subsidiary of Enel Green Power which is the renewable power providing subsidiary of Enel S.p.A., an Italian based energy company.
With the current economic times, no one can blame landowners for searching for additional income sources from alternative land uses. If that alternative land use happens to be the construction of wind turbines, it is their right to do so. No one wants to question their private property right to lease their land. What other landowners may want to consider, though, is the amount of property rights they are required to surrender when they sign one of these leases. The memorandums that are filed in the court house are brief and do not include all of the terms of the lease. They do, however, give enough details of the lease to allow potential land purchasers, title companies, lenders, etc. to have an idea how far reaching the actual lease agreements are.
For instance, the memorandums say that the Lessee (Mason Mountain Wind Project), "… shall have possession of the Property for the following uses and purposes…" They then list in five paragraphs all the uses and purposes the Lessee gains the right to. In addition to the wind turbines themselves, the Lessee can build overhead and underground transmission lines; overhead and underground control, communications and radio relay systems and telecommunications equipment; control, maintenance, storage, and administration buildings; and lay down areas and maintenance yards. They also have the right to take down any of these structures and relocate them any time they want. The Lessee also has the right to use any roads that exist on the property to access their wind power facilities and to use any roads that the Lessee builds or anyone else builds in the future.
The memorandums indicate the actual wind farm leases have a term of up to five years with two successive 25 year extensions at the Lessee’s option and are binding on the landowners and their heirs, successors, and assigns. The Lessee has the right to sublease any part of the lease, assign the lease to another party, divide it into separate lease agreements, and borrow against the improvements the Lessee builds on the property. The Lessor (landowner) waives any setback requirements that might be in existence in the event that a neighboring property has wind turbines. These are just a few things mentioned in the memorandums. One can only imagine what other property rights landowners give up in the actual lease agreements.
Padoma, in a "facts and figures" segment of one of its recent web sites, quoted the American Wind Energy Association as stating that each megawatt of wind energy production can provide landowners $2,000 to $4,000 of income per year. For a 1.5 MW wind turbine, that would amount to $3,000 to $6,000 per year per turbine. If a landowner has 10 of these turbines on their property, it could supplement their income by $30,000 to $60,000 per year. What is the likelihood that a landowner gets 10 wind turbines? A landowner’s property may lie in between the ridge tops where the wind developers like to build the turbines. The between landowner may only get the transmission lines connecting his neighbors’ ridge tops or some of the other structures that will be required for the project. In a relatively poor wind area such as Mason County, what are the real wind income opportunities for landowners? Published wind maps show northern Mason County to be in a Class 2 wind area which is considered to be poor or marginal. Will the actual income from wind leases be enough to offset the property rights landowners will be required to surrender to the wind developer?
What about the neighbors?
It is a landowner’s right to sign a lease to allow wind turbines to be built on their property. We all want to protect our rights to our private property. The very tough question is: where is the protection for the rights of the neighbors near wind farms who do not have the opportunity to have or do not want to have wind turbines? How about their rights to enjoy their properties and to protect their land values? If GE 1.5 MW turbines are used, these structures could reach a height of 400 feet to the tip of their blades. Areas of Mason Mountain are over 2000 feet in elevation. A white, glistening, 400 ft. tall wind turbine on Mason Mountain, rising to 2400 feet, will be visible from a long distance. Easily visible from Fort Mason. Imagine a hundred of them.
Neighbors are going to be affected. We get aggravated when our neighbor’s hunters put deer blinds on an adjoining fence line. What will wind turbines on your fence line be like? Neighboring properties may suffer from effects of, "audio, visual, view, light, flicker, noise, vibration, air turbulence, wake, electromagnetic, electrical and radio frequency interference…" These are effects listed in the Memorandums of Wind Energy Lease and Agreement signed by the Lessor (landowner) for which the landowner must grant a non-exclusive easement. If the Lessor must sign an easement for these potentially objectionable conditions, what rights do neighbors have when some of these conditions affect them?
Some of these effects are fairly easy to visualize. The light flicker or spinning shadow that a wind turbine gives off when the sun is behind it at lower angles is like the spinning shadow that a ceiling fan throws on your living room ceiling. This light flicker might not seem like much of a nuisance unless it was flickering on your breakfast table every morning while you are drinking your coffee and reading your newspaper. The noise the wind turbines make might not be much of a nuisance especially as quiet as they claim turbines have become, unless you were used to little or no noise before the turbines were built. Each turbine will likely be topped with a warning beacon blinking after dark to warn air traffic. We complain about the number of cell towers blinking at night. Imagine over a hundred wind turbine beacons lighting up the night sky above us.
How could it affect Mason County?
Many of the considerations for a wind farm are the same as those for a transmission line. If a person had a choice whether to live near a wind farm or not live near one, wouldn’t they logically choose not to live near one? For those neighbors who want to sell their property and move away from the wind turbines, what do we think will happen to the value of their property? When property values in Mason County are based on the aesthetics of the scenic Texas Hill Country, what do we think will happen when an industrial wind farm is built here? People who come to visit Mason do so to get away from big cities like Dallas and Houston. Many come to enjoy the friendly people, the natural scenery, the wide open spaces and the star lit skies. They come to enjoy one of the last pristine counties in the state. What environmental, historic and economic impacts will an industrial wind farm have on Mason County?
What could happen?
Wind farm developments have a way of spreading. Some wind farms in the Abilene and Sweetwater area are in their third, fourth and even fifth phases of development. Landowners initially opposed to wind turbines, once they are surrounded by them, eventually may give in. If they have to look at them on their neighbor’s place and suffer from some of the negative effects, they may decide that they might as well lease their property and at least get some income. When this wind farm development in Mason County gets off the ground what will stop it from spreading? What will keep it from spreading east on Mason Mountain and some day overlooking the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area?
If this proposed wind farm development continues to progress from its current status, the next step may be for the wind farm developer to formally ask the county officials to create a reinvestment zone for the area to be developed. This reinvestment zone creates the mechanism by which the wind developer can ask the county for tax abatements on the property tax that would be assessed on the wind turbines and other structures. At around two million dollars apiece, one hundred turbines could amount to about 200 million dollars of new taxable property value. Wind farm developers could ask for at much as a fifty percent abatement for the first 10 years of operation. The wind developer may also approach the school district for an abatement type agreement. For the school district and the county, the temptation of the added tax revenue even after the abatements will be strong. They should, however, consider what the long term impacts on property valuations will be. If these developments are so attractive, why do wind farm developers need tax abatements on top of the other large government subsidies they receive?
When construction begins the wind developer will almost certainly move in heavy equipment that will travel our highways and county roads. They will begin to clear right of ways for approaches to the ridgelines where the turbines will most likely be erected. They will clear areas for the pad sites where the turbines themselves will be built. They will clear right of ways for all of the connecting overhead and underground electrical transmission lines that will connect the turbines crossing fields, streambeds, etc. to get where they need to go. They will build staging yards and assembling yards and all of the other structures that will be required for the project. They will build power substations to collect the electricity before moving it into the grid. They will use landowners’ water wells or drill new ones for the water that will be needed during construction. They may move in concrete batch plants for all of the concrete that will go into the enormous bases for the turbines.
Most of us have seen the long turbine blades that have traveled down our highways going to wind farms out west. Imagine these structures being moved down our farm to market highways and county roads. The developers will move in the huge cranes that will be used to erect the towers. When the construction actually begins, the wild life will probably leave the area. If construction takes place during hunting season, hunting will likely not be allowed for the safety of the construction personnel. Some wind farm leases, once operational, even require notification each time hunters come on the property to hunt. The deer might move back after the construction is completed, but will the hunters? Why leave the concrete jungle of Houston to come hunt under the shadow of an industrial wind farm if there are other choices? Will the wind lease income be enough to offset the possible loss of hunting lease income?
Once the wind turbines are constructed, they will require maintenance. These are large complicated machines that will require regular access on leased properties by maintenance personnel to service them. These turbines will eventually wear out and break. In 20 or 30 years when these wind turbines are obsolete or no longer feasible to operate, who will take them down and dig up the huge concrete bases? Is it likely that a limited liability company that is a subsidiary of a subsidiary that is a subsidiary of another subsidiary that is a subsidiary of a foreign company will still feel responsible for or remain financially capable of removing these behemoths and restoring these properties to their original state? Or will the landowners be stuck with the bill?
What can I do?
Become informed. Consider the impacts an industrial wind farm development in Mason County could have on the entire county, good or bad. Contact your county officials. Let them know your thoughts about the formation of a reinvestment zone. Communicate how you feel about tax abatements. Save Our Scenic Hill Country Environment is a good source for information about wind energy development as well as transmission lines. Check out the SOSHCE website at www.soshillcountry.org/.
What is the legacy that we want to pass on to future generations in Mason County?