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Along with wheat, corn and cattle, Colorado’s Eastern Plains grow another big crop: more than 95% of the state’s renewable energy capacity that produces thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in benefits each year.

A report released Tuesday by The Western Way, a conservative organization that promotes environmental stewardship, in partnership with PRO 15 and Action22, policy and economic development organizations, highlights the importance of renewable energy to eastern Colorado.

Greg Brophy, a former state legislator and Colorado director of The Western Way, said he hopes the report demonstrates how valuable renewable energy is to the area’s economy and that it encourages other eastern Colorado counties to “roll out the welcome mat” for wind, solar and battery storage projects.

Brophy said the tax revenue and jobs generated by the projects and the lease payments for people willing to have wind turbines on their land have buoyed household incomes and local government budgets through droughts and low crop prices.

And now, like everywhere else, eastern Colorado communities are dealing with the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Brophy pointed to Kit Carson County as an example of the kind of steady economic benefits renewable energy can provide. He said the first wind farm was installed there around 2014 and it has about 1,000 megawatts of generation up and running or being built.

“We could be close to half of the general fund revenue in Kit Carson County coming from wind energy production,” Brophy said.

The study, conducted by Development Research Partners in Littleton, analyzed the economic impacts of the utility-scale renewable energy projects in 15 eastern Colorado counties. The report looks at 40 projects, seven of which are under construction or scheduled for completion by 2024, and found the following benefits:

  • $9.4 billion in construction and investment activity from projects completed or planned from 2000 to 2024. By 2024, investment will have increased by 75% since 2016.
  • 6,334 jobs in eastern Colorado with 366 businesses
  • $388.6 million in annual economic output
  • $23.1 million in annual property taxes paid to local governments
  • $15.2 million in annual lease payments to ranchers and farmers

The sites include Xcel Energy-Colorado’s 95,000-acre Rush Creek wind farm that stretches over five counties: Lincoln, Arapahoe, Elbert, Kit Carson and Cheyenne. Other utilities involved in projects on the Eastern Plains include Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Black Hills Energy and Colorado Springs Utilities.

The use of wind and solar has grown as the costs of both have dropped. Utilities, including rural electric associations, are reducing or eliminating coal from their fuel mix not only to cut greenhouse-gas emissions but to also save money and lower rates.

“If you want lower cost utilities, you can develop more renewable energy because it’s unbelievably low priced right now and cost-competitive with any other form of generation,” said Brophy, who farms near Wray.

Colorado’s Eastern Plains, with their sweeping expanses and abundance of wind, have been a beneficiary of the expansion. And the growth has been swift. In 2010, there was a total capacity of 1,253 megawatts of wind power across nine facilities, according to the report. An additional 3,707 megawatts of renewable energy, wind and solar, are expected to be operable in the area by the end of 2020.

By 2024, the renewable energy capacity on the Eastern Plains is projected to grow by more than 22% to a total capacity of 6,069 megawatts, according to the report.

Although the number of wind and solar projects has increased quickly, area residents’ embrace of renewable energy as an industry has taken a while, said Cathy Shull, executive director of PRO 15, a northeastern Colorado policy and advocacy organization whose members come from business, education, government and nonprofits.

“The Eastern Plains were very much an oil and gas industry (area) for many many decades,” Shull said.

But people came around to an all-of-the-above approach to energy development, Shull added.

“I would say that wind energy took a while for people to really get excited about. It was the money that was brought into the economy in property taxes, construction and maintenance” that convinced people, Shull said. “And I think solar will be embraced quicker.”

Renewable energy facilities generate about $2 million annually for Kit Carson County, a significant contribution, Cory Wall, a county commissioner, said in a statement. “Eastern Colorado has been hit hard by the COVID economic shutdown and swings in commodity prices.”

Brophy said farmers and ranchers have earned substantial income from allowing companies to locate wind turbines and other facilities on their land.

“We saw from 2012 to 2015 the greatest drop in commodity prices that we’ve seen since the Great Depression. Right on the tail end of that, in Lincoln County, Logan County and Kit Carson, we started to see wind energy develop,” Brophy said.

The facilities started producing a stable stream of tax revenue and a huge influx of capital during construction.

“And this is key: Farmers and ranchers were getting lease payments,” Brophy said.

The 15 counties studied in the report are: Arapahoe, Baca, Bent, Cheyenne, Elbert, El Paso, Huerfano, Kit Carson, Las Animas, Lincoln, Logan, Prowers, Pueblo, Washington and Weld.

This content was originally published here.