Inherit the Wind, Part 4

Wherein We Get into the Weeds

By Greg Hill

It begins with a large white envelope, delivered to your mailbox. Within that envelope is a folder whose cover depicts a flat landscape and endless blue sky familiar to anyone living on the High Plains of Eastern Colorado. Except, in this iteration, the prairie-grass sea is punctuated with a series of slender white towers, each of which is topped by three delicate-looking blades whose design simultaneously evokes a peace sign and the logo of a Mercedes-Benz.
Opening the folder, you’ll find a series of graphics that outline a process that just might conclude with you raking in thousands of dollars per year in exchange for signing a deal to allow the installation of 550-foot-tall wind turbines on your property, and to keep them there for 60-70 years.
Congratulations, you are a landowner in Yuma County, Colorado, and you’ve just been contacted by Engie, a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Welcome to the Great Renewable Land Rush in Yuma County.
As I outlined in my previous piece in this series, once Xcel Energy announced their plans to build the Colorado Power Pathway — a massive project that’ll pass just west of Yuma County as it stretches from the northern front range to southeast Colorado — a power-vacuum (pun acknowledged) was created. And Engie has rushed in to fill that vacuum.
Let’s set aside for a moment the (inexplicably-controversial) environmental benefits of wind power, and look instead at profit, a benefit that’s been known to stir the blood of folks irrespective of persuasion or party. There’s money to be made in these here flatlands, or, to be more precise, in the air above these flatlands. But since wind turbines don’t float in the air, they need to be planted in the firmament, and the vast majority of Yuma County’s firmament is in the hands of private landowners for whom “get paid handsomely to sign an easement with a wind turbine company” was never on the business plan.
Point being, this is unknown territory for virtually all of us. I say “us” because, as mentioned previously, my family is currently weighing the pros and cons of allowing Engie to build on our land.
To be clear, I’ve heard rumors that there may be other power companies canvassing the area; I’m focusing on Engie because they seem to be dominating the field(s).
Okay, let’s get to know Engie a little better. They’re a utility company based in France. For decades, they’ve been a major supplier of France’s natural gas and electricity, with most of the latter generated by coal plants. Since 2014, Engie’s been divesting from fossil fuels — coal in particular — and instead focusing on renewable energy and, apparently, world-domination: they have expanded from France and now have projects in 48 countries. You can read plenty more online, but, in a word, they are huge.
Being huge can be good (they know how to build wind farms, their checks are unlikely to bounce, and we can assume that Xcel isn’t going to do business with a company they can’t trust) and it can be bad (giant corporations are typically more concerned with profit than they are with the betterment of humankind). Between the good and bad, it’s easy to get tied into philosophical knots over this. In my case, I’m trying to weigh the dangers of global warming against a suspicion of corporate behemoths…all without letting potential profits talk me into compromising those morals I so righteously trumpet in these columns. Other people, with their own moralities, will have their own versions of these philosophical knots.
In any case, if you’re wrestling with this decision, that means you own land. Owning land, generally speaking, puts you in an enviable economic position relative to those who do not. In other words, this is a desirable problem.
Let’s say that, after you’ve unraveled the philosophical knots, you decide to sign the easement with Engie. What’s next? First, you’ll wait. Construction isn’t going to begin for a year, or two, or three, or seven. It could be a while; once Engie sews up all their land deals, they will have to coordinate their timelines with Xcel’s construction of the Colorado Power Pathway (see my previous article for details on this). And there’s always a chance that things could go haywire and the whole thing could be canceled. It’s a gamble for everyone involved.
While you’re waiting for construction to begin, you’ll get paid an annual fee just so Engie can hold onto the option. The per-acre numbers may vary from contract to contract, but I can assure you that the option fee will be nominal; it’s certainly not going to be putting any kids thru college. For this duration, you may farm, graze, keep your land in CRP, whatever you want.
At some point, you’ll be told, “Here we come!” Within a couple of months, the crews will start showing up and you’re going to need to keep out of their way. Engie promises that they’ll compensate farmers for any complications in CRP calculations, or if crops have to be destroyed — if you’ve planted a circle of corn, you’re probably going to have to plow it under. During construction, your nominal per-acre fee will be more or less doubled. Again, this can vary from contract to contract. All of this would be outlined in the easement agreement. (By the way, I’m using “contract” and “easement” interchangeably.)
The construction will be unpleasant. There’s no getting around this. For roughly a year, Engie will be building roads into fields, excavating holes, pouring concrete, raising power lines, and installing the turbines. Although we’re accustomed to sharing the roads with large machines (tractors, trucks, yadda yadda) it’ll still be jarring to see semis hauling giant turbine blades down our dirt roads.
From speaking with Engie reps, it appears that there will no more than two towers per quarter-section, and all of the towers will be set back at least 1,000 feet from any roads and 1,400 feet from any domicile. I say “appears” because those setback numbers have changed since our first conversations. Rest assured that towers will be situated in such a way that none of them could topple onto your rooftop.
Eventually, the turbines will be completed and the crews will pack up and move onto their next site. Engie will be contractually obliged to restore any land that has been disturbed, which will presumably include re-seeding any prairie grasses that were torn out. In the end, assuming Engie holds to their promises, the only significant change to the land should be the giant towers poking toward the heavens.
Once completed, each turbine and its access road will occupy two-to-three acres of land. The rest of the acreage will remain available for farming/ranching/CRP, etc. Engie promises to cover any losses to CRP income, and they aim to minimize interference with center-pivot irrigation. To the latter, I suspect they’ll try to place the turbines in corners and/or in such a manner that would allow the sprinkler to “windshield-wiper” back and forth, as opposed to running in a complete circle.
I’m told that the turbines will require very little maintenance; maybe a yearly check-up, and occasional equipment upgrades.
When the turbines start spinning, the payment structure shifts away from the option fees and into something far more substantial. How substantial? It can vary from contract to contract (depending on what you and Engie agree on), and on the state of technology at the time (payments will be based on the amount of energy generated by the towers) but this is definitely where we move out of “nominal” and enter the realm of “paying off debts and sending kids to college.” Engie doesn’t like to give specific numbers (I suspect because they don’t yet know for certain what those numbers will be), but from what I understand, you’re probably looking at more than $10,000 per tower per year. Those rates will be tied to a cost-of-living metric that’ll be adjusted over time to reflect inflation. This is important because, again, these contracts will be for 60-70 years.
Engie will be contractually obligated to set aside a large fund that will guarantee that, should everything go to hell and they go bankrupt, they’ll at the very least be able to dismantle the towers and remove them from Yuma County altogether.
Let’s now travel in time, to somewhere in the mid-to-late 2020s. All the cranes are gone, the dirt is back in place, farmers are farming, wind is blowing, and cash is flowing. Cool. But what about the birds? What about the horizons? What about the jobs? And are Yuma County’s landowners going to rake in the dough while everybody else just sits and waits for the crumbs? And, perhaps the most pressing question…Will I have finally finished writing this series?
More in a couple of weeks…

Hill is a Yuma County native, graduate of Liberty High School, and published author of the “East of Denver” trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected].