Monday, May 14, 2018

MidAmerican Wind Property Tax Update

In the utility's press release for wind XI, once again, MEC indicates that its wind projects cost more than the valuations the utility has reported to county assessors.

The utility lists the cost of wind XI at $3.6 billion , and will use 1000 turbines, and have 2000 megawatts of capacity. In the past, the utility has reported valuations of their wind projects in the area of $1600 per kilowatt, and even lower in some of the county assessor filings I've seen.

It looks like MEC will use 2 megawatt turbines, as noted by using 1000 turbines to reach the 2000 megawatts.  The following release in North American Wind Power mentions MEC has selected Vestas 2 megawatt turbines for wind XI.


From North American Wind Power

Using the MEC provided project information, let's do the math.
$3.6 billion divided by 1000 turbines = a cost of $3.6 million per turbine.
$3.6 million divided by 2000 kilowatts = an installed cost of $1800 per kilowatt. quite a lot higher than the utility is reporting to county assessors.
$200 x 2000 kilowatts per turbine = a possible undervaluation per turbine of $400,000.
1000 turbines x $400,000 = equals a potential $400,000,000 undervaluation of this wind project for for tax purposes.

I'm using Mid-American"s cost figures, from their press release, so once again , we have another example of the utility listing higher valuations for their wind projects than MEC reports to county assessors.

Previous posts on this topic have also noted examples of  the utility listing higher valuations at FERC, and the the IUB than at the county levels.

Part of the project cost includes grid interconnection . It's possible the missing $400,000,000 might be interconnection costs. MEC is on record reporting some wind costs in the utility replacement tax instead of classified as wind  property. even though the wind property tax code seems to say otherwise.I'm guessing a private wind developer (not an Iowa utility) couldn't do this.

      So, is $400,000,000 in the wrong tax program, missing altogether, or something else?

The main questions I have from researching this are-

Why am I consistently finding lower valuations reported at the county level than MEC reports in their press releases, FERC, and the IUB ?

How much revenue is local government  losing because MEC reports wind assets in the utility replacement tax program ? Sorry public , its confidential at the department of revenue.

Is the utility self reporting the replacement tax filings with little or no review by the department of revenue? That department has not answered my question about what audit procedures are used  to verify MEC's replacement tax filings .

It's time for this information to be made available to the public so we can see. I'm certainly willing to discuss this with the utility , appropriate state agencies, or elected officials.

Considering the growing public resistance to large scale wind projects in Iowa, making the utility's wind costs available to the public would let voters see if the utility's cost savings of buying turbines in bulk is more than transmission cost upgrades to connect industrial wind to the grid.

Then policy makers could determine if if future renewable energy projects should be smaller , more distributed, and owned by regular Iowan's instead of a Berkshire Hathaway utility.

I'm wondering if wind projects were owned by regular Iowan's, that it would make it easier to sort out this property tax issue!

  "We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

  Louis Brandeis


Monday, August 21, 2017

MidAmerican wind property tax update

The MEC wind  property tax information in the several preceding  posts has been made available to several state agencies. The Iowa department of revenue, Iowa department of management, State treasurers office, and the state auditors office. It has also been sent to numerous elected officials. To date, public officials have not acted on this information that I'm aware of, except the auditors office,  who replied that they would have several staff members examine the information. The department of revenue plainly noted several times during my phone call with them that they would not be devoting staff time to this and disagreed heavily with the information sent to them, though they didn't list any information that explained the discrepancies between the utility county property tax valuations and the utility's IUB and federal agency filings. I've had more than one county assessor and supervisor mention verbally that this issue is controlled at the state level, and out of their hands, though the department of revenue seems to clearly state otherwise.

It might just be coincidence, but I couldn't help remembering the following instance, where the former governor replaced replaced replaced an Iowa utilities board member, shortly after a IUB board ruling that MidAmerican clearly disliked. It received minimal coverage in the media, even though the ousted board member bluntly suggested essentially that state regulators and elected officials need need more insulation from the utility lobby in Iowa. Please check out the following articles, the first from Utility Dive. The article quoted the following from ousted board member Sheila Tipton -
"Administrative agencies, including the Iowa Utilities Board, are intended to be independent and not subject to political pressures or threats of retaliation,"

KCCI in Des Moines also noted this issue, and included the following quote from the ousted board member- Tipton said Branstad's shakeup threatens the board's independence and sends a message to "get in line" and favor utilities. Yeah, pretty blunt alright.

Bleedingheartland had the most in depth  coverage of this that I was able to find online, including the full letter Sheila Tipton sent to the governors office.

I've advocated for locally owned renewables for a long time. As a result, I've spent a fair amount of time at the state legislature. anyone who visits the legislature can see firsthand, the amount of influence that MidAmerican and the rest of the utility lobby yield there. Frankly, I concur that regulators, elected officials, and other folks  shouldn't have to be concerned about utility pressure. Also, a  MidAmerican wind turbine is sited of a small parcel of farmland that I own.  So, I've had several interactions with the utility during the past 15 plus years, besides my current research into the property tax issue. During that time,  the following letter from my local insurance provider arrived.

 I scanned it onto the computer. It's hard to tell from the picture, but the letter had indeed been opened, and taped shut again. In this instance, the utility had access to detailed information about me, including the location of my farming operation. The post office was unable to explain why this letters route traveled through MidAmerican, Like I said, things like this are probably just a coincidence...   

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MidAmerican Wind Property Tax Update

As mentioned previously, last year, I sent quite lot of information compiled on the MEC wind property tax issue, and a list of questions to the Department of Management (DOM), and the Department of Revenue (IDR). I asked them to meet with a few interested parties about this issue, or at least, answer the questions. Instead, I received a non scheduled phone call from from the department of revenue that was hands down the rudest conversation I have ever had with a public employee. I was forced to become pretty assertive to even get my concerns heard. The conversation focused on two main areas.

1-the fact that MidAmerican reported lower wind valuations in Calhoun County than the utility. After quite a bit of discussion, the caller wanted to know who at the IUB had provided the information referenced. The Calhoun assessor has never mentioned the staff persons name.

2- the fact that MidAmerican is declaring wind assets under the Iowa Utility replacement excise tax. 
IDR insisted that was not happening. I typed notes of our conversation and sent them to both department contacts, in order to clarify my concerns. I received the following reply- The only on the record statement from IDR on this.


              Still disagreement that this was even happening , even though I mentioned I had an email from a MidAmerican employee verifying that it was.

I don't think this is fair for the utility to do this when an independent wind project probably can't. Also, I'm betting that state and local government are losing potential revenue because of this, though state and local government haven't been helpful to date determining what amount. I'm guessing MidAmerican wouldn't report taxes this way unless it was benefiting their bottom line.

In addition, much information included on the IDR website seems to support my opinion.

The states special valuation of wind property also suggests the items reported by MidAmerican in the replacement tax program should be taxed in the wind valuation instead.

and finally, IDR the following memo to me when I contacted them about this issue some time back.

Comments from from IDR are welcome , especially answers to the question list referenced in a previous post.

MidAmerican Wind Property Tax Update

The Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) is another potential source for verifying the accuracy of wind  property tax filings submitted by MidAmerican to Iowa counties for determining valuations. A wealth of information on the utility's wind projects and other generation assets are submitted by the utility in order to get approval by state regulators
Unfortunately, most of that information is confidential and not available to Iowans. Interested tax payers could jump through the hoops and forms necessary to access this information (see IUB letter below), but they would likely have to sign a non disclosure agreement. How then, do interested persons use that information to insure accuracy of the utility's property tax filings?

As an example, The Calhoun County assessor was able to receive an exact cost of the turbines located in that county when she called the IUB. She contacted the IUB when I filed a petition to review MidAmerican's turbine valuations. The information IUB provided supported my position, but the review board dismissed the petition anyway. So, having access to IUB records would useful if I were to pursue an appeal process. However, it appears unlikely I could access that information, or use it in a public appeal process, or share it with the media if I believe that I didn't receive fair treatment from public officials in this matter.

When a letter was sent to the IUB asking for this same information for several more of MidAmerican's wind projects. This was the response received from an IUB staff person.


Frankly, it would have been quicker the for the IUB staff person to just provide the same project cost information for these projects that was provided to the Calhoun county assessor. Instead he notes that much of this information is not available online invited the interested parties to drive to Des Moines and look for it ourselves. He also notes the one Docket available online,     RPU-2013-0003 . 
I had already downloaded a document from the six pages of filings listed for this docket, which included an actual cost listing for MidAmerican's wind VII project. The request for information letter sent to the IUB referenced that this information appeared to be available, and asked them to provide that same information for additional projects.  I also asked for the specific project cost items listed in this filing, but figured I would only get the basic information highlighted below. 


 It's understandable that IUB would maintain confidentiality while the utility is requesting project bids. Much of projects specifics of this heavily redacted 50 plus page document were blanked out.  But, IUB rightly saw no reason to redact the previous completed wind project cost, since no project specifics were listed. This will be useful information to verify the utility's property tax filings for the "wind vii" locations.

However, since this request letter was sent to the IUB,  the document above no longer appears to be listed when you search the IUB electronic filing system.  A Wikipedia page for MidAmerican's Highland wind project lists a now broken link to the same docket, probably the same document I downloaded.


 So now , anyone who travels to Des Moines for this information will probably find it a waste of their time. It also no longer appears to be available online . IUB has this information readily available, so why won't they provide it? Especially since MidAmerican provides information about their wind project costs to FERC. Why can't the public easily access this basic IUB info to see if those wind project costs match the Utility's county and federal filings, Unless the numbers don't match for some reason.   
Comment from the IUB is welcome.  

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MidAmerican Wind Property tax Update

What kind of changes would simplify county assessors ability to verify that all wind farm costs are accounted for when performing assessments. Memos to the assessors from the department of revenue instruct them to do just that, but it doesn't appear that is being done, MidAmerican, and probably other wind projects as well, seem to self reporting their wind farm costs.

Proper formatting of cost reporting filings by wind projects would be a great help to assessors comply with the DOR's recommendation. In my opinion, MidAmerican's county filings leave much room for improvement. But, before we get to that, let's review a filing by an independent wind project in Pocahontas county that,I think, did a very good job of reporting the installed cost of their wind project.

Cover page lists total cost, and a per turbine cost.These are 2 megawatt turbines, I believe, and the installed cost per kilowatt in relatively close to the Iowa Wind energy Association's cost estimates of constructing wind turbines    


Nicely organized.
As you can see, project costs are organized so the assessor can see the cost of individual items, such as turbines, foundations, labor, construction, substation equipment, and it is possible for the assessor or a 3rd party consultant  knowledgeable with wind project costs, to contact suppliers of this type of equipment to verify costs, and visually inspect the wind property verify that all equipment and costs have been listed.

Note that this project includes substation grid interconnection costs as wind property, when I noted in previous posts that MidAmerican is claiming these costs in the Iowa utility replacement tax. This is very unfair to this Minneapolis company, as I don't believe they could utilize the replacement excise tax to lower property tax costs. 

Now let's review examples of MidAmerican's wind filings in the same county.  While the MEC filings I've reviewed have cover pages with cost summary's, their breakdown of substation and turbine costs don't list as many individual items. The assessor must navigate 50 some pages of the invoice spreadsheet list that frankly, seem hard to verify they were used on this project. 

Also, the MEC reported this project to cost less on a cost per kilowatt basis, than the independent project  in the same county listed above. It's installed cost is also lower than the cost the utility reported to FERC and the utilities board. Also lower than the Iowa Wind Energy Association's cost of wind estimate for that time period. This should concern a county assessor IMO.   

It also concerns me that I can't verify that MEC always includes supporting documentation of costs when adding turbines at a site, or in this case, when costs were lowered one phase of this project  a few years later with no apparent explanation or documentation as to why they were lowered. 


That's all for now. 


Sunday, June 25, 2017

MidAmerican Property Tax Update

If the utility's wind  property tax are in fact, too low, how much is the state short?

That's a good question that state and local officials could help sort out, but since  they haven't yet, let's estimate it.

The last few posts list several of the discrepancies I've identified while trying to if MidAmerican is paying the correct amount of property taxes on their wind projects in Iowa. So how much revenue is the state possibly leaving on the table? I haven't found a formula yet describing the amount of property tax dollars stay with local schools and government, and how much goes to the state budget. I suspect some of the blog visitors are public employees, and are most welcome to provide that information. However, I can can give a estimate of property tax dollars that government might be leaving on the table. Let's start with the difference between the utility's press release concerning their Wind 8 project  and the actual property filings for the Lundgren project, part of Wind 8
Even though this project is listed at the federal level at about $5 million more it is assessed for, let's assume the utility knew what it was talking about in the press release.The utility press release seems to claim the 107 wind turbines at the Lundgren location cost about $80 million more than they are assessed in Webster county. Some of the cost of this wind project will be substation and interconnection costs, but since they are valued in Webster county at about $12 million, there's still a lot money not accounted for here.

So let's use $80,000,000... a nice round figure.  When wind project property assessment reaches its maximum level of 30% of the projects value, $24 million of the $80 million is taxed. Using an estimate of $24 of tax per $1000 of property, is the state leaving $576,000 per year on the table with just one wind project? There are another 341 turbines in wind 8, so, subtracting some money for substation and interconnection costs,, maybe another $1.5 million is missing annually on wind 8? Seems like  a discrepancy that's more than $2 million annually is worth tracking down!

Though I'm not sure if the FERC cost numbers are accurate, given the large difference between those numbers and the press release figures above, let's use them for another example, the Pomeroy project. The utility said  this project cost about $15 million more in their FERC filings than assessed locally. The utility also told the state utilities board the project cost about $13.5 million more than assessed. Let's use $15 million.   $15 million x .30 percent = $4,500.000. That number x $24 per thousand =$108,000 annually. There's still the rest of the utility's 20 some wind projects to check as well.

The potential mistakes identified in the utility's replacement tax filings are even more concerning to me, because if I have found even a few, I'll bet there's more. Since the state hasn't replied to my question asking how the state makes sure the replacement tax reporting is accurate, we can't be sure. But it can't be ruled out that the utility self reports its replacement tax, just as it seems to be doing with its wind property taxes. The state should go on record as to how this task is performed, since MidAmerican is one of the state's largest tax payers.

When I find errors like the utility forgetting how many turbines they have installed in Pocahontas County, they shouldn't be allowed to self report.  It's hard for me to have much faith in the turbine costs with mistakes like this.

 Pocahontas Assessor notes  that 5 turbines were installed in this phase of the project. the utility thinks it was 11.

 Or was it 8?

 So, What needs to be done about this? 
 MidAmerican's wind projects and replacement tax filings need an audit in my opinion... several years worth. The results need to be transparent for the state's tax payers to review. If current state law doesn't allow for that, legislation should be passed that does allow for that. We need to see that local assessments were correctly performed and reviewed by the state to insure accuracy.

Comments from public officials are welcome, and I'm willing to update these property tax posts if provided with additional accurate information. 


Thursday, April 6, 2017

MidAmerican Wind Property Tax Update

In the previous post, one item on the list sent to the state department of revenue and department management asked for help identifying MEC's wind assets listed under the Iowa Utility Replacement Tax, and comparing the assessed replacement tax of the asset to what the assessed tax would be if the asset was classified as wind property under Iowa Code 427.B.

At an informal meeting with Webster county officials last September, I was directed to the state department of revenue and the department of management for this information, even though wind property is assessed locally in the state. Since neither state agency has responded to that list of questions and concerns on record yet, let's take a look anyway, as some of this information is available online. We won't be able to completely resolve this issue without confirmation from state, local government,or utility, as you'll see shortly.

MidAmerican declared the following substation built for its Webster County Lundgren wind project as wind property in 3013.

 In 2015 the utility then changed its mind and declared the substation was to be moved to the state utility replacement tax instead, even though it was built to connect the wind farm to the grid.

 The utility explained the reason for the switch, was that a small transmission line separated the grid connection point from the wind project collection facilities.

 As the staff person at department of management (DOM) noted, the department of revenue(DOR) prepares these reports for  DOM . The department of management website lists replacement tax assets, gas or electric, by county and township. The electric assets are classified as trans or elec. The only MidAmerican electric assets listed that are close to the substation location, are 1 transmission asset and 1 electric asset in Burnside township. The transmission line is assessed at approximately $76,000 and the electric asset at $1500, so is the $1500 asset the substation removed from local wind assessment? Even if it's not THE substation, it is likely a substation, so it serves as a reasonable comparison of replacement tax and wind property tax rates. This is why I contacted state officials to take the guess work out.  

  If this electric asset was classified as wind property, using a estimated township tax rate of $24 per thousand dollars of valuation, it would be assessed at $21,952 when the reached year 7.

So did the utility declare this asset as wind property because it tax rate in the first year would be zero? Then move it to replacement tax later because it would generate a lower assessment there? When I review 427.B, it seems this asset should assessed locally as wind property.

 Unfortunately, there is a bigger problem here. These same two Burnside township assets appear on the replacement tax reports back to 2011, and up to 2017, though the substation was declared wind property in 2013 . So it appears this substation was removed from local assessment and is still not listed in the replacement tax reports. So has a $3 million dollar wind asset been taxed little or nothing since it was built about 4 years ago? It also appears that utility, county officials, and state agencies have not noticed. This is why I contacted state officials at year end for more information. MidAmerican has more than 20 wind projects in the state now, so has this happened elsewhere? It seems reasonable that Iowan's would expect more scrutiny and transparency when it comes to the utility's taxes.