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Wind farm operators would post cleanup costs under Texas bills

Bills introduced in the Texas Legislature would impose requirements on owners or operators of wind farms to provide for clean-up costs in the event that wind turbines are decommissioned. Under the bills, wind farm operators who fail to provide proper financial assurances that they can remove turbines when they are retired, or who fail to properly remove wind generation facilities upon their retirement, would face penalties.

As wind power becomes more widespread across rural areas of Texas, legislators are seeking to establish new protections for landowners, who are in many cases farmers leasing out the right to erect turbines in their fields to wind generators. The bills seek to protect and restore such land when the wind farms are taken offline.

House Bill 2845, introduced by Rep. Terry Canales, a Democrat, provides that, when wind turbines are decommissioned, wind farm operators must clear, clean and erase essentially any traces of the wind farm, including turbines, substations, liquids, greases or similar substances, foundations and pad-mount transformers, and holes or cavities in the ground. Wind farm operators would have to "return the property to a tillable state."

That provision ignores the fact that, in many cases, wind farms do not eliminate farmland from cultivation. In fact, leasing turbine rights often provides a lifeline to farmers who would otherwise be forced to sell off the property. Texas landowners received more than $60 million in lease payments from wind farm owners in 2017, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

The bill would also require wind farm operators to provide property owners bonds, letters of credit, escrow accounts or other forms of financial assurance to ensure that decommissioning requirements are met. And it would void any previous provisions contained in agreements between wind farm operators and property owners that exempts wind farm operators from liabilities.

The bill was read for the first time in the House on March 12 and assigned to the State Affairs committee.

Senate Bill 1372, introduced by Republican Donna Campbell, creates a wind generation decommissioning fund.

Under the bill, the Public Utilities Commission of Texas would require owners of wind farm owners, in taking a wind farm offline, to "maintain and decommission the wind-powered generation facility in a manner that protects the environment and the interests of the owner of the property on which the facility is located." Like the House version, SB 1372 would require wind farm owners to maintain bonds, letters of credit or cash deposits for decommissioning wind farms.

The Texas Public Utilities Commission would require owners to pay money into the decommissioning fund. State regulators would use money in the fund "to conduct a site investigation or environmental assessment of a wind-power generation facility," the bill says.

State regulators may use the money in the fund if a generation owner "has failed or refused to decommission the wind-powered generation facility after notice and opportunity for hearing," according to the legislation. The PUC would be able to "recover all costs incurred by the commission" if the state, rather than the wind-farm owner, is forced to decommission a wind farm.

The bills would become law on Sept. 1 if passed.