Water to wind
When the irrigation pumps shut down at the end of the 2004 season, the 15 employees of the Bell Rapids Irrigation District had no idea that the next season would have them removing much of the 130 miles of irrigation pipeline they had maintained for 37 years.
“It was hard to do,” says Robert Arnold, district manager. “We had taken extra time to get it done the right way, and two years later there was no need for it.” Arnold and his crew had just rebuilt a major pump station that lifted water 600 feet to the 26,000-acre project.
Pumping costs on the project had risen 200% over five years. “The soil up here produces 20% better crops than just across the canyon,” says Arnold. “That’s what kept us going.”
The 35 shareholders in the district were struggling to lower costs when the state of Idaho offered to buy their water shares, and a wind power company approached them with a project.
• Rising power costs prompted Idaho irrigators to look at alternatives.
• Wind power and grazing replace high-lift irrigation.
• Wind power benefits from Idaho sales tax exemption.
“We had been asked in 2004 to do a presentation on the concept of wind power and storage to power the irrigation district,” says James Carkulis, president of Exergy, developers of the wind turbine project. “Our proposal would have cut the cost of pumping in half.”
Idaho offered the shareholders $1,250 per acre for their water. Five years later the rolling hills that grew exceptional crops of beets, wheat and alfalfa are sprouting wheatgrass and wind towers. Except for 1,200 acres of dryland wheat, cows harvest the fields, and the granaries and machinery sheds sit empty.
“Instead of a pump project,” Carkulis says, “we built the first utility-scale wind park in Idaho.”
The initial seven towers overlook the Snake River south of Bliss, Idaho, and are visible from Interstate 84.
“Installation costs were very high in 2008,” says Carkulis. “The costs are down now, and we are working on the final phase of the project.” His company has permits for 60 wind turbines, with applications for an additional 30.
“We are pretty close to the maximum number of turbines on the project,” he says. “Transmission constraints would make more wind power in that area very expensive.”
According to Carkulis, Idaho’s sales tax exemption for wind turbines is critical. “Otherwise, we would be building in other areas with better wind resources.”
Carkulis says that Idaho has a “modest wind resource — dependable but modest in velocity. Velocity is money.”
“Wind turbines are the solution to high-lift irrigation on the Snake River,” Carkulis says. His company has plans for 210 megawatts of power generation in southern Idaho.
Tews writes from Shone, Idaho, and can be reached at [email protected].
This article published in the March, 2010 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.