Campaign donors, politicians behind Searchlight wind project

Duke Energy, Sen. Reid play major role as wind-turbine farm imposed on community

SEARCHLIGHT — The Department of the Interior may have recently approved the Searchlight Wind Project, but those who stand to benefit most from the project are politicians and well-connected campaign donors, and not the people of Searchlight.

“People from other communities told us, ‘you don’t want [wind turbines],’” said Sandy Walters, chairwoman of the Searchlight Town Advisory Board. “We tried telling that to BLM and Duke Energy, too.”

The Searchlight Wind Project was officially announced in 2008 and will be a subsidiary of Duke Energy Corporation, an active player in the renewable-energy market. The project will consist of 87 wind turbines — pared down from an originally proposed 161 — and is projected to create 15 full-time jobs and generate $18.6 million in tax revenue over the project’s lifetime, according to a Bureau of Land Management fact sheet.

But the potential benefits of the project don’t outweigh the negatives, says Walters. Studies show wind turbines can cause as much as a 60 percent decline in property values, and the tranquil desert landscape leading toward Cottonwood Cove would be impaired by the turbine noise and construction.

“[The turbines] would deter tourists,” said Walters, “let alone residents who are used to the peace and quiet.”

Searchlight resident Judy Bundorf, whose home will be 1.2 miles from the turbines, also expressed concern. “People live here, retire here, vacation here because of the natural beauty,” Bundorf said. “They don’t want to wake up every day and see 400-foot-tall turbines sticking out of the desert.”

In April 2001, then-Sen. Harry Reid, a Searchlight native, wrote a letter to the Searchlight Town Advisory Board arguing against a proposed gas fire-powered plant asserting that it would “ruin” views of Searchlight’s natural beauty.

I love to come home and breath the fresh air and see the vistas from my home. This proposed power plant would forever foul the air and ruin the beautiful views of the mountains I love, not only for me, but everyone that lives in Searchlight

I would hope for the residents of Searchlight and basic fairness, you would recommend against this monstrosity.

In January 2013, however, the now-Senate Majority Leader Reid responded differently to Searchlight residents who sent him more than 550 signed postcards arguing against the proposed Duke wind project. They cited, among other concerns, that the project would “ruin the beautiful views.”

“I recognize that the proposed wind project in Searchlight has elicited strong opinions in favor and in opposition from residents and non-residents of Nevada,” Reid wrote. “We are fortunate to live in a state that has sunny skies, strong winds, and abundant geothermal resources on lands that when used properly, will provide for us and our children a cleaner and more efficient future that gives Nevada a chance at energy independence.”

Views from Reid’s property, however, won’t be ruined. That’s because when Duke Energy scaled the project down from 161 turbines to 87 turbines, it removed the proposed turbines near Reid’s property on the west side of Searchlight. According to maps presented by Duke Energy and the BLM, only the turbines proposed for the town’s east side remain. While Reid will still have his “beautiful views of the mountains,” some turbines will be just 1,000 feet from private property lines.

Following the money

Duke Energy has been a major campaign contributor to Reid and other prominent Democrats.

James E. Rogers, Duke Energy’s CEO, has contributed to both parties, but made large donations to support Reid’s effort to keep his majority-leader post in 2010. Reid, in his 2010 re-election campaign, directly received donations of $4,800 from Rogers. The Duke CEO also gave $30,400 to the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee and $30,000 to the Democratic National Committee that year.

In 2012, Duke Energy underwrote the Democratic National Convention held in Charlotte, N.C., where the company is headquartered. Not only was Rogers a co-chair of the convention, personally giving it $339,000, in cash and in-kind services, but Duke Energy also guaranteed a $10 million loan taken out by the Democratic Party to fund the convention — later forgiving the loan and writing it off as a tax-deductible loss.

Duke shareholders thus footed $6 million of the convention’s cost, while U.S. taxpayers were hit for the other $4 million.

The energy giant’s decisions were met with controversy, in part because the DNC had originally banned corporate contributions. A Duke spokesman told the left-leaning Huffington Post that Duke’s involvement in the convention was because the convention presented an “economic development event” for Charlotte. HuffPo also noted, however, that Duke’s decision “brought accusations of political hypocrisy and corporate favoritism.”

The “corporate favoritism” argument could be traced back at least to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvest Act or “stimulus,” from which Duke and its subsidiaries received over $230 million in funding.

A Duke Energy spokeswoman told Nevada Journal the cost of the Searchlight wind project remains “undisclosed,” and it’s too early to determine if the project would qualify for tax credits or subsidies.

Most wind projects around the country eventually receive some form of tax credit or subsidy, notes Mike Garland, CEO of Pattern Energy. The company operates the Spring Valley Wind project in White Pine County.

“The Production Tax Credit is critical to the wind energy industry and the tens of thousands of U.S. manufacturing jobs currently providing American-made wind power products,” Garland told The Ely Times. “Asking the wind industry to compete without the PTC is akin to asking a NASCAR driver to compete in a car with three wheels.”

Garland was referring to the federal wind Production Tax Credit, which was extended in the fiscal cliff deal at the beginning of 2013. The credit’s extension was championed by Reid during last summer’s National Clean Energy Summit (NCES), and is estimated to cost taxpayers over $1 billion per year for the next 10 years.

While extending the wind PTC, Reid has called for eliminating subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, telling reporters at last summer’s NCES:

There’s no reason that these [fossil fuel companies] that have more money than any industry in the history of the world in the last 10 years, why they should still be taking subsidies from American taxpayers.

Reid’s involvement with renewable-energy companies dates back long before the PTC or the “stimulus” legislation.

Reid has been a long-time proponent of so-called “clean” energy and has called for shutting down coal-powered plants and increasing Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which would mean higher energy prices for ratepayers. Currently, the State of Nevada mandates that utility companies must, by 2025, derive 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources.

Reid’s son, Rory, the former Nevada gubernatorial candidate and now a partner in the Lionel Sawyer & Collins law firm, is also connected to the Searchlight Wind Project. Lionel Sawyer & Collins represents Duke Energy, as well as several other renewable-energy companies championed by Harry Reid. They include First Solar Inc., the Arizona-based company that received $50 million in stimulus tax credits for its Silver State North plant near Primm and subsequently sold that plant to Canadian-based Enbridge Energy Partners.

In total, Nevada received $2.9 billion in stimulus funds, with over $1.1 billion going toward renewable-energy projects.

One of the biggest stimulus recipients in Nevada, the One Nevada Transmission Line (ON Line), received a $324 million Department of Energy loan guarantee and is also tied to Lionel Sawyer & Collins. The law firm worked with the DOE on the “real estate, regulatory, environmental, and commercial due diligence” on the loan guarantee.

According to the BLM, the Searchlight wind project is still two to three years away from officially breaking ground.

Kyle Gillis is a reporter for Nevada Journal, a publication of the Nevada Policy Research Institute. For more in-depth reporting, visit http://nevadajournal.com/ and http://npri.org/.

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