Wind Farms Fight Headwinds
by Tom Banse
East of the Cascades, wind farms stretch for miles. Now, the first wind turbines west of the mountains have gone online. Four towering wind mills are spinning just a couple miles from the ocean surf near Grayland, Washington. Energy developers are looking to the more heavily populated west side for additional wind farm locations. Blades would spin above tree tops instead of wheat stalks, but only if threatened birds won't face harm. Correspondent Tom Banse reports.
The Northwest's first coastal wind farm drew oohs, aahhs, and applause when a local politician flipped the switch to put the project online Saturday.
Sound: "Here we go!" (applause)
Four wind turbines point into the ocean breeze and start to turn. This wind farm was built by a nonprofit social service agency. Coastal Community Action Program Director Troy Colley expects electricity sales to generate on average half a million dollars in new revenue per year. That will shore up services like meals-on-wheels and home heating assistance.
Troy Colley: "What you're seeing here most people would call an alternative energy project. We see it as a social service project."
A speaker at the dedication in Grayland, Washington called it a "win-wind." Supporters believe this could be the first of several commercial wind farms west of the Cascades.
Troy Colley: "We really don't know what the impact of wind turbines is going to be on the coast. So we're small. It's very conveniently located. So we'll be a study area and we'll learn a whole lot out of these four turbines here."
So what's different about timber country compared to the hundreds of windmills already in place in the ranch-and-wheat country of the inland Northwest? The short answer is birds. There are more of them in the lush western forests. Ken Berg, a manager with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, points out some of those birds are on the threatened list. And that could be a real challenge for the proposed new wind farms.
Ken Berg: "There are some that are in the flight path of the listed marbled murrelet. We've been working closely with those project proponents to see that studies are done so we can effectively analyze any risk of murrelets colliding with the wind turbines."
The utility consortium Energy Northwest is trying to satisfy Fish and Wildlife concerns. Right now, it's demonstrating a radar specially fine-tuned to detect approaching birds. Vice president Jack Baker says the consortium set up the radar on a windswept ridge in southwest Washington's Pacific County. That's where Energy Northwest wants to install 32 turbine towers.
Jack Baker: "If we elect to go this path, then you can project the path the murrelet will travel. Then indeed if it has some probability of flying through your wind farm area, you could shut down one or several turbines just to minimize the chance of impact."
Baker says wind farm developers will go this extra mile so they can be closer to population centers and avoid transmission bottlenecks around the region.
Four Western Washington public utilities are fronting the money to develop the project known as Radar Ridge. But the biggest of those utilities, Grays Harbor PUD, is losing confidence the project will ever be permitted. General manager Rick Lovely says Grays Harbor has decided to put its stake up for sale.
Rick Lovely: "We thought we had done the good science and had an environmental assessment that demonstrated this site was a great site for a wind project. The science says one thing, but politics and environmental movements say another."
A dozen Audubon Society chapters have come out against the Radar Ridge wind farm.
Environmentalists have also raised questions about another proposed wind farm. That 50 turbine project is called Whistling Ridge. It's on private timberland near the Columbia Gorge.
There's a third wind project in timber country. It goes by the name Coyote Crest. Again, it's 50 wind turbines on leased Weyerhaeuser land in rural southwest Washington. So far, this one has not generated many complaints about bird impacts. Locals seem most interested in getting the same benefits seen east of the Cascades: jobs and tax revenue. I'm Tom Banse in Grayland, Washington.
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