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Decisions Coming on Wind Farm Project

by Mike Marsh
The Daily World, May 8, 2010

PUD commissioners meet Monday to determine project's future

Energy Northwest A view from Radar Ridge looking out to the Pacific Ocean. Energy Northwest and a group of utilities, including the Grays Harbor and Pacific County PUDs, hope to build a wind farm on the site, located near Naselle. During the early part of the Cold War it was a U.S. Air Force radar installation and since the 1960s Radar Ridge has been home to logging operations, gravel pits and communications towers.

Now, a consortium of public utilities, including the Grays Harbor and Pacific County PUDs, and Energy Northwest, a non-profit, joint operating agency that provides electricity at cost to public utilities and municipalities, wants to turn the site near Naselle into a wind farm.

However, attaining permits for the project, which began three years ago, has been a painstaking process. There is growing concern about how much the wind farm project will end up costing and if there are other ways to meet the green energy goals in the state's Energy Independence Act of 2006.

The planning costs for the project were originally estimated to cost just over $3 million. That money is exhausted, spent on extensive studies and surveys to show the Radar Ridge wind farm would have a minimal impact on the environment.

A new estimate projects the pre-construction costs for the wind farm will be around $5.2 million. It would mean a $1.375 million increase for the Grays Harbor PUD, which owns 49 percent of the project. That would be on top of $845,250 it has already spent.

For the Pacific County PUD, which owns 21 percent of the project, it would mean a little more than a 100 percent increase, which commissioners have already approved, to the $260,000 or so they have already invested.

Rick Lovely, the general manager of the Grays Harbor PUD, will bring the proposal for additional money to commissioners on Monday. They will decide to grant the funding and continue with the wind project, or cut their losses and look for other ways to satisfy the energy mandates.

"Winds changes and markets change ... it's a moving target and it's moving a lot," said Grays Harbor PUD Commissioner Tom Casey at a board meeting earlier this week. "(The decision) is whether we drop the wrench and just blow off the money that we've spent to this point. Or whether we're going to develop the project to a point where it's of interest to us, or anybody else for that matter."

Casey, who is also on the board of directors for Energy Northwest, added that with the information at hand, "it's the most valuable wind site in the Northwest." The land is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources and leased to benefit the State School Trust, and the site has numerous other advantages.

But there are risks, Casey said.

Even if the project is given additional funding, there is no guarantee that the developers will get the permits to start installing wind turbines on Radar Ridge.

Green Energy

Initiative 937, now known as the Energy Independence Act, was passed by Washington voters in 2006 and it's driving much of the interest in alternative energy. It requires non-profit, locally regulated utilities with more than 25,000 customers to provide 3 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2012, 9 percent by 2016 and 15 percent by 2020.

Fail to comply and the utilities face financial penalties.

While PUDs in Washington get nearly 82 percent of all electricity from hydropower, a renewable resource that produces zero carbon emissions, it cannot be applied to meet the mandates of the Energy Independence Act.

"The bulk of our power is from hydropower, which we purchase from the Bonneville Power Association," said Liz Anderson, the community and government relations officer with the Grays Harbor PUD. "If it were considered an eligible renewable, we would more than meet the standards in the act. I believe it is safe to say the act is intended to promote development of other types of renewable resources, such as wind."

And on Radar Ridge, wind is in abundance.

"This site is really unique because it ... presents a very good profile to the ocean," explained Lovely. "There is nothing in front ... and there's nothing impacting the winds."

A wind profile shows winds are strongest -- upwards of 12 miles per hour -- and more sustained in the winter, which makes Radar Ridge "an opportune site for us to get because our peak load is in the wintertime," said Lovely.

A number of other factors make the site attractive, as well, including its close proximity to a Bonneville Power Administration transmission line and that it has seen significant industrial use, so there are well-maintained roads.

There are economic advantages, too, says Jack Baker, Energy Northwest's vice president of Energy and Business Services.

"It's right in the backyard," said Baker. "That's the advantage of Pacific locations for wind farms. The Radar Ridge wind farm is a local project that provides construction jobs, operating jobs, and ongoing payment from the wind farm to the counties' tax bases and the school trust."

Doug Miller, the general manager of the Pacific County PUD, agrees.

"It's a huge shot in the arm for Pacific County from an economic standpoint," he said.

Marbled Murrelet

According to Lovely, the permitting process has been "a real hurdle" for the wind farm project.

At the center of it all is the marbled murrelet, a small seabird on the endangered species list. With as many as 32 262-foot high turbines planned for the site, were the birds in danger of colliding with the turbines? Would the wind farm have a negative impact on the old-growth habitat where the marble murrelet nests?

Groups such as Seattle Audubon, Discovery Coast Audubon in Long Beach and the United States Fish & Wildlife Service have asked these questions and the project developers believe they have answered them.

One study done by Hamer Environmental in Mount Vernon found that less than one marbled murrelet a year would strike the turbines, and that number, Anderson says, is on the conservative side. It also showed that no old-growth forest would be harmed.

The study was then independently reviewed by the Department of Statistics and Probability at Michigan State University.

"The conclusion was, indeed, that the study was appropriate," said Lovely. "The information and the conclusions were relevant ... and the modeling was accurate and well-done."

Patricia Cruse, the president of Discovery Coast Audubon, agrees.

"Discovery Coast Audubon has been very active in the project since the beginning," she said. "The board took a physical tour through the site. We have read all the information and the surveys, and we approve of the project. We see no old growth forest there for the marbled murrelet to use."

Others don't feel the same way.

"We are firmly and resolutely opposed to the project," said Shawn Cantrell, the executive director of Seattle Audubon and a member of the Washington State Audubon Conservation Committee. "It is the wrong place for a wind farm."

Cantrell says Energy Northwest and the utilities have made an admirable effort in order to reduce and mitigate the chances of bird strikes with the turbines, "but we don't see eye to eye."

"Even if they get the number of bird strikes down to zero, the Nemah Ridge is the single best spot for (marbled murrelet) habitat ... and for trying to develop new habitat."

It's something Lovely questions.

"They call it prime murrelet habitat," he said, "but there are six active roads up there, active logging, an active rock quarry, and you've got radio and TV towers all over the place. How do you call that active habitat?"

Cantrell stresses that the Audubon Society supports wind farm development on the coast, noting that the organization is behind wind farm projects at Coyote Crest in Lewis County and Whistling Ridge in Skamania County.

"Wind energy is a necessary part of our climate future ... but it has to be done in an environmentally sound way," he said.

Moving forward

For the wind farm to move forward, an Incidental Take Permit must be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The group of utilities has provided the agency an Environmental Assessment, outlining a habitat conservation plan, along with the research and other environmental information.

"We believe the Environmental Assessment was extensive and well done," said Baker, of Energy Northwest. "All criteria to successfully build the project are met."

But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may decide that the Environmental Assessment isn't enough and request an Environmental Impact Statement, required for actions that significantly affect the quality of the human environment.

That means more money and the Grays Harbor PUD on Monday will decide if it's feasible.

If the board approves the additional funding, more mitigation measures will follow in order to improve the chance of attaining the Incidental Take Permit. One such measure is a radar called Merlin, which detects when marbled murrelets are flying close and can shut down the turbines blades. It also sends a loud noise to distract the birds.

"Every one says Merlin is a game changer," Lovely told the commissioners earlier this week, adding that it could convince the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to move forward.

According to Lovely, the permits, if approved, will be in place by the end of 2011. Financing would occur in 2012 and then construction would begin. The wind farm would be operational by 2015.

While 2015 seems a ways off, the project is time sensitive, especially because the public utilities and Energy Northwest have been granted $122 million in clean energy renewable bonds. But they need the permits in order to use the bonds, which would need to be spent by 2015.

"The permits give you the ability to actually go out and get the bonds," Lovely said. "If you don't have the permits, you can't get the bonds ... and we don't have a project."

"The idea is to keep the cost as low as possible," he added, "and it looks like with the clean renewable energy bonds we can do that for a dramatically lower cost."

Should the Radar Ridge wind farm not work out for the Grays Harbor PUD, the utility will have to find others renewable energy sources.

"We're fortunate in that we already have the first (mandate) covered with Nine Canyon," Lovely said, referring to a wind farm near Kennewick the utility is involved with. "We have the luxury of being able to look around if something happens to Radar Ridge and we lose it."

Mike Marsh
Daily World reporter Steven Friederich contributed to this story.
Decisions Coming on Wind Farm Project
The Daily World, May 8, 2010

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