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New West Daily Roundup for Nov. 29, 2016

Today in New West news: wind advocates challenge BPA over Montana’s Clearwater Wind farm, Vestas Wind Systems grows U.S. market share, reforesting whitebark pine, and Utah tax code cost schools $1.2 billion over two decades.

According to the Billings Gazette, Montana wind advocates are asking the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to ax a transmission fee currently in place for about 90 miles of BPA line in Montana—line connected to the (currently developing) Clearwater Wind farm near Forsyth.

Earthjustice attorneys argue the fee makes the wind project less competitive, with Ann Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center noting that the fee (which has been around for decades) is only being applied to the 90 miles in Montana; the BPA oversees approximately 15,000 miles of transmission line in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. From the Gazette:

“It’s enough to keep Montana wind energy from being competitive,” said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “We’re not going to get any wind off the ground if we don’t resolve these problems.”

MEIC and the Sierra Club are partners in the challenge to transmission charges levied by BPA, a nonprofit federal agency that markets power in the Pacific Northwest. BPA agreed Monday to allow the groups to intervene BPA’s rate setting proceedings.


The fee is roughly $2 a megawatt hour, enough to keep wind energy from being competitive, said Jeff Fox, of Renewable Northwest, which promotes cheap renewable energy in the region.

“Our position is that it hampers the development of wind resources and it’s unjustifiable,” Fox said.

Montana wind energy is well timed to feed into the power demands of Washington and Oregon, Fox said. Wind energy is at its peak in Montana in the winter months, when Pacific Northwest wind production is low and dams along the Columbia River are aren’t very active.

In January, BPA will accept public testimony about the rates it charges for energy services in the Pacific Northwest. This is the process by which BPA determines how much money it needs to charge customers in order to cover its costs and repay the U.S. Treasury.

MEIC and the Sierra Club will make their case during the public testimony period. A decision about BPA rates will be made in May.

Speaking of wind power, according to the Denver Post, Danish turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems (which has four plants in Colorado, employing about 4,000 people) has seen in increase in its share of U.S. wind turbine capacity—a whopping 34 percent of the 8.2 gigawatts installed last year:

That was second only to General Electric, which accounted for 42 percent of installations and ahead of Siemens at 16 percent. It represents the largest share Vestas has claimed in the U.S. in records going back to 2005 and reflects a big turn around from 2013, when the company had almost no installations.

The big three manufacturers accounted for 76 percent of the 55 gigawatts of the nation’s installed wind generating capacity at the end of 2015. General Electric turbines accounted for 43 percent of the total capacity, while Vestas had 18 percent and Siemens claimed 15 percent, according to the EIA.

Vestas has been on a hiring spree since 2014, adding hundreds of jobs to its plants in Windsor, Brighton and Pueblo. Federal tax credits backing wind energy, however, are set to phase out through 2020.

Earlier this year, we reported Vestas held 33 percent of the U.S. turbine market, trailing Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE Wind’s 40-percent share.

Keeping with Montana, with the whitebark pine across the American west imperiled by fungal disease (white pine blister rust) and beetle infestation—both factors stoked by climate change—western officials and residents are looking to stem the tide of pine death. Indeed, according to the Missoulian, the existential threat facing these trees has spurred frantic reforestation and research efforts:

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is in the throes of one such reforestation project west of Helena, planting 10,000 whitebark seedlings at Granite Butte near Stemple Pass. The planting is the third in the last six years in the wildfire scar from the 2010 Davis fire. The project includes monitoring every two years to judge success.

“The goal of the Helena-Lewis and Clark is to plant 100 to 200 acres every year,” said Riley Dopler with the Forest Service. “With seedlings we have a higher chance of success with a lot of site prep so trees get the right amount of sunlight.”

The Forest Service planted about 50 acres at Granite Butte this year, along with planting an additional 10,000 trees near Showdown Ski Area near Neihart.

Monitoring from 2012 and 2014 Granite Butte plantings has been highly encouraging, with 97 percent and 99 percent survival, respectively. The project includes some thinning, as other trees such as lodgepole may out-compete whitebark.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Dopler said of the survival. “They’re slow-growing but there’s a good bet they’ll be there at least for a while with what we’ve seen.”

According to Diana Six, professor of forest entomology and pathology at the University of Montana, the state has several tools at its disposal, including seedlings genetically resistant to blister rust, but current efforts don’t measure up—especially, as Six notes, it may take six to eight decades for whitebark pine to produce offspring. Nonetheless, Six finds hope in current efforts, noting that, prior to reforestation efforts and research, some people believed whitebark “was a lost cause.”

Finally, down in Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, two decades of Utah tax policy has cost the state’s public school system $1.2 billion, a surprising deficit considering that lawmakers have approved millions of dollars to the education budget over the years. But as Utah Foundation research director Shawn Teigen, those increases are chewed up by inflation and enrollment growth:

“Those big increases, on average, have been basically whittled away to about $22 million per year in new funding,” Teigen said. “We’re definitely not saying it’s nothing. It’s just not quite the grand push toward education funding as maybe it looks like on the surface.”

Utah Foundation researchers looked at several changes to Utah’s tax code — including the Truth in Taxation process and a 1996 constitutional amendment that allowed income tax revenue to be diverted from K-12 schools to support higher education — and the effect those changes had on reducing the flow of funds to classrooms.

Utah’s funding effort — the share of personal income used to support public schools — was ranked seventh in the nation in the mid-1990s. It has since dropped to 37th.

“Utah’s K-12 funding effort has stagnated compared to the rest of the nation,” Teigen said in a prepared statement.

If the state had maintained its funding effort of $39 for every $1,000 of personal income, he said, per-student funding would also be $2,000 higher. Utah schools are currently the lowest-funded in the nation on a per-student basis.

The report also states that income tax cuts over the past 20 years have cost schools $350 million each year, and the pressure from Truth in Taxation has reduced annual funding by roughly $600 million.

Enacted in 1985, Truth in Taxation requires property taxes to remain revenue-neutral by automatically decreasing tax rates as property values increase.

That means taxing entities must actively raise taxes to capture inflation, Teigen said, rather than passively benefiting from increased value.

State education funding is supplemented at the local level by property taxes, which are levied by district-school boards.

“It’s hard to put a dollar amount on Truth in Taxation,” Teigen said. “It is all about holding revenue neutral over time, and the effect of that is a decreasing percentage for the property tax.”

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