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U.S. panel sides with Dana farmer

(Saturday, Dec. 6, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Perry Beeman, DesMoines Register: Five years after they installed a wind turbine to power their farm, Greg and Beverly Swecker won a federal victory to get their first electricity from the $45,000 machine.

In a case with huge ramifications in Iowa - the nation's 10th-windiest state - the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently ordered Midland Power Cooperative of Jefferson to hook the turbine to its grid and abide by federal rules intended to promote wind power.

If the co-op balks, the commission plans to force the issue in federal court, a rare move. The co-op has violated federal law by failing to work in good faith with the Sweckers, the commission ruled last month.

"They are going to have to hook me up no matter what now," said Greg Swecker, who farms near Dana.

Midland plans to ask the regulatory commission to reconsider.

Wind turbine salesman Tyler McNeal said the Sweckers' maddening journey through red tape running from Jefferson to Washington, D.C., illustrates the obstacles to Iowa farmers using wind to produce their own power. Farmers have called suppliers, then decided against buying a turbine after hearing of the hassles involved in getting hooked up.

"If I had known it was going to be this hard, I wouldn't have sold him the turbine," said McNeal of Windway Technologies, which sold Swecker the turbine in 1998.

Midland General Manager Roger Wieck said the nonprofit cooperative's board doesn't think it would be fair for other customers to subsidize Swecker's turbine installation. That would happen under Swecker's proposals, the co-op maintains.

The co-op doesn't oppose wind energy, in general, Wieck said.

"Midland has always and continues to be willing to provide the service needed to hook up turbines," Wieck said. "The member must meet the cost requirements of our tariff, which was approved by the Iowa Utilities Board. Our responsibility is the best interests of all our customers."

Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act to promote alternative-energy projects. Iowa now has more than 400 large wind turbines, mostly in commercial wind farms and at schools, but the number of smaller turbines owned by individual farmers has barely grown.

That, McNeal said, is because of the aggravating hassles involved in getting contracts that offer a fair price for the power, and various utility rules he suspects are written to discourage the installations, in violation of federal law.

Now that could change, based on the Sweckers' experience.

"This affects the whole country," McNeal said of the commission's decision. "This is the only time this issue has been pressed all the way to the top."

The commission pointedly rejected Midland's argument that it was not covered by the federal rules that give landowners the right to install the turbines and hook them up to the local grid under favorable terms. The panel turned down Midland's request for a waiver of federal rules.

"We find that initiating an enforcement proceeding is appropriate in this instance because for over five years Midland has abused its role as a "nonregulated electric utility" . . . to frustrate Mr. Swecker's attempts to exercise his rights.

"Midland has obviously spent a great deal of money fighting the Sweckers. . . . It appears to us that Midland's resources would have been better spent seeking a compromise with Mr. Swecker."

Utilities and co-ops have contended they must protect their systems from problems with equipment they don't own. They say the power costs them more than electricity generated by burning coal. That has been hotly disputed, and backers say wind power now is competitively priced, especially considering the pollution from coal plants and from vehicles hauling the fuel.

The Sweckers plan to power an 800-hog confinement, their house and a machine shed with the 65-kilowatt turbine.

Greg Swecker estimates he'll still have two-thirds of the power left over to sell back to Midland. The Sweckers contended in legal filings that Midland has been "deliberately difficult and uncompromising."

The commission accused the 14-county Midland co-op and its parent organization, Central Iowa Power Cooperative, of legal doublespeak. Midland argued in state proceedings that the federal government was the only one that could settle the matter, then argued at the federal commission that only the state could rule.

The energy commission encouraged the parties to settle the matter before it lands in federal court. Greg Swecker said he gave Midland a proposed contract, but hasn't heard from the co-op.

Source: http://desmoinesregister.com/news/stories/c5903220/22945370.html