The wind turbines on his Colorado farm are 20 years old—Who’s going to take them down?

On October 23, 2022, the Colorado Sun published an interesting story titled “The wind turbines on this Colorado farm are 20 years old. Who’s going to take them down?”

The story begins in 2000, when Tom Fehringer, a Colorado farmer near the Nebraska border, was approached by wind company representatives who pressured him to sign a contract on the spot to lease his land for wind turbines. The Sun reports:

Fehringer consulted an attorney in Sterling who said the contract was vague but fairly similar to what an oil and gas company might present. The agreement was signed within a few weeks. Fehringer soon had nine of the Peetz Table wind project’s 33 turbines turning on his Logan County land.

Fehringer, 71, had long been intrigued by renewable energy. He’d considered erecting a wind turbine for his own use and has solar panels outside his house. He calls himself a “firm believer in science” and global warming.

The wind towers were attractive for another reason: enXco, the developer of the project, was offering landowners $1,000 per tower, per year.

“You come out here dangling $1,000 and that’s big,” Fehringer said. “Nobody’s getting millions, but what it’s done to the property tax base, it’s been huge.” 

But by 2001, the year the project became operational, Fehringer wanted to renegotiate because he had learned that his contract paid far less than the industry standard and didn’t adjust for inflation, but the wind facility has transferred ownership so many times he doesn’t know which company owns them.

This is a problem because wind turbines throughout the country are reaching the end of their short, 20-year lifespans, prompting people to ask the question, who will take them down?

In Colorado, it’s not an easy question to answer.

While oil and natural gas development has been governed by 100 years of state laws, no such broad-based regulatory structure exists for wind and solar. Kent Holsinger, a lawyer whose firm focuses on natural resources, said that renewable regulations are a patchwork of local regulations.

Without state regulations, some counties are drafting their own rules regulating the appearance, placement, and noise levels of turbines and how they might be decommissioned. 

Decommissioning is a massively important issue that is virtually a black box. In 2019, I warned our readers that Xcel Energy estimates it will cost $532,000 to decommission a single wind turbine at the Nobles wind facility.

In Colorado, when the huge towers and blades begin to wear out, it can be unclear who bears the removal costs.

The Sun reports that the decommissioning obligations in contracts tend to be vaguely worded and many of the agreements have confidentiality clauses, barring landowners from discussing their terms.

This vague language applies to Mr. Fehringer’s turbines. The company that maintains them says only that equipment will be removed within a year of its ending. That date is not specified in documents reviewed by The Colorado Sun, including in an application filed with the county and draft and signed landowner contracts. The terms “termination” and “removal” are not defined. One document says the turbines are expected to last more than 25 years.

Fehringer assumes the project’s owners won’t be as eager to decommission the towers as they were to put them up. “They’re not going to be so anxious to come in with brand new equipment and want to get this thing cleaned up,” he said. 

Due to this uncertainty, local governments are adding conditions to permits for wind projects. Niyol Wind LLC in Colorado agreed to remove buried cables, remove the foundations under each tower, and fill holes with topsoil when the project is done. They also agreed to provide financial assurance to ensure the cleanup happens after 15 years, but this may be too late, as many wind facilities are not lasting to their 20-year design life.

This could leave local governments on the hook for removing the turbines. Or, like the turbines in California’s central valley, the skeletons of worn-out turbines will stick around for decades to come.