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Turbines Could Signal State's Energy Future

by Associated Press
Capital Press, October 20, 2006

Wolverine Creek wind farm provides enough power for 12,000 homes

BONE, Idaho - Forty-three wind turbines, each as tall as a 20-story building, rise from the rolling hills around Bone and stretch for nearly six miles across southeastern Idaho.

Steve Rhodes, whose family has ranched and farmed here for four generations, admits that the windmills "took some getting used to."

"They changed the landscape," he said. "But now I think they're kinda pretty. This is something I've dreamed about all my life. The wind blows most of the time out here. I've always thought somebody ought to do something about it."

Somebody is. Compared with the mass of a hydroelectric dam or the stacks of a coal-fired plant, the Wolverine Creek Wind Farm looks benign, almost low-tech. But the pale gray turbine blades spinning almost silently in the green hills around Bone provide enough electricity to power 12,000 homes.

Idaho's largest wind farm could be a harbinger of the state's energy future. A smaller commercial wind farm, Fossil Gulch, is operating near Hagerman in south-central Idaho, and a project three times the size of Wolverine Creek called the Cotterel Mountain Wind Farm is projected to be operating in 2008, also in south-central Idaho, near Albion. Its turbines would dot ridge lines for 18 miles and provide enough power for 40,000 homes. More than 40 other projects large and small are in various stages of planning.

Modern technology has brought wind power into the mainstream. Wind power doesn't pollute, it contributes jobs and tax dollars to rural economies and, unlike coal or natural gas, it has no fuel costs. Demand among prospective developers is great enough that wind turbines are back-ordered two years. Wind farms along the Snake River Plain could soon be as common as potato fields.

Not everyone likes wind power. Albion residents have signed a petition opposing the Cotterel project, which they say would dominate the landscape. Albion's Jim Wahlgren, chairman of a committee opposed to Cotterel, adds that wind farms are less effective than other methods of energy production because the wind isn't always blowing.

At the Idaho Division of Energy office in Boise, however, principal energy specialist Gerry Galinato says wind is the renewable energy source with the proven technology most likely to affect Idaho's energy picture in the near future.

"Wind is the renewable technology of today," said state Sen. Curt McKenzie, a Nampa Republican and co-chairman of a committee working to revise Idaho's energy plan. "And it's only going to be a more reliable source as we learn how to capture the energy and release it better. Of all the renewable energies, wind is where our largest supply will come from."

Wind and other renewable sources meet what appears to be a growing desire among Idahoans for green energy. A public outcry over emissions was a factor in the defeat of Sempra Corp.'s proposed coal-fired plant in the Magic Valley this spring, and wind was the energy source of choice in a 2005 Boise State University study of energy policy issues.

Of 534 adults BSU surveyed statewide, 59 percent chose wind as the most desirable source of power. It was the most popular choice, followed by solar and hydro. Natural gas, coal and oil were rated the least desirable.

Idaho's wind power potential is significant. A Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development study estimates it at 1,800 megawatts. The state ranks 13th among states in potential wind power, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Its ranking would be higher if not for an abundance of sites aesthetically off limits - no one wants wind turbines dotting the White Clouds, Sawtooths, Craters of the Moon or other iconic vistas.

Two wind-energy companies have moved their headquarters here from other states. One is the Exergy Development Group, which has offices in California and Montana but operates mainly out of Boise.

"Southern Idaho is one big wind machine," Exergy President James Carkulis said. "It starts in the west and slides up the western slopes to the northeast with few geographical factors to impede it."

Exergy has utility contracts for 10 wind farms in Idaho with a total of 138 megawatts of power output. They would nearly triple the 75.4 megawatts now produced in the state, almost all of it at Wolverine Creek and Fossil Gulch.

Wind farms are built primarily in rural areas, bringing jobs and tax revenues with them. Wind can also be a source of income for local ranchers and farmers on whose land wind turbines are erected. Depending on the amount of power produced, they typically receive $4,000 to $7,000 per year per turbine. The turbines' effect on crops and livestock is minimal.

"I don't have any on my land," said Rhodes, whose farm lies a breath of wind away from Wolverine Creek. "But I wish I did."

Idaho Power has contracted to include some 300 megawatts of wind power in its system. Senior Vice President James Miller says that's "about 10 percent of our load, which is more than just about any utility in the country."

The company's new resource plan, completed in late August, envisions an additional 250 megawatts of wind over the next 20 years. Some think the company could be doing more.

"That's pretty puny," Idaho Energy Division engineer Gerald Fleischman said. "Over 20 years, that's not nearly enough. If they get all the wind they're talking about, it would be one of the biggest percentages of any utility in the U.S. But what that really says is that they all should be doing more."

From a utility company's point of view, wind's biggest drawback is variability: The wind isn't always blowing. Utilities need stable power they can dispatch immediately to handle peak loads and emergencies.

"If we plan on a certain amount of wind and don't get it, hydro has to fill the gap," Miller said.

As more wind farms come on line over a greater geographical area, variability lessens.

Wind is "a wave that goes across the state," said Brian Jackson, a partner in the small Lewandowski wind farm between Boise and Mountain Home. "If Fossil Gulch is tapering off, wind farms at American Falls might be producing."

Dozens of projects are contemplated throughout the Southern Idaho wind corridor. The degree of interest from potential developers was so unexpected that Idaho Power asked the Idaho Public Utilities Commission for a break to allow the company to study the effects of integrating wind power into its system.

The PUC responded last summer with a moratorium on applications for small wind farms. Commissioners will decide whether to lift the moratorium after analyzing Idaho Power's wind integration study, which is expected late this month.

Not even its most avid proponents say wind energy is perfect. Getting power from wind farms to utility grids can be expensive. Developers must build transmission lines, a costly procedure in a business with relatively low profit margins and high risk factors.

Early wind farms in California had small, rapidly turning blades that killed thousands of birds. Albion residents have expressed concern over the Cotterel project's potential impact on raptors and endangered sage grouse. In response, Windland Inc. spokesman Mike Heckler said the company spent more than three years tracking birds with radio monitors and paying people to observe sage grouse and raptor movements.

"The bottom line is that we sited the turbines around the bird-use areas," he said.

Turbines also have changed over time to lessen threats to birds. Latticed towers that birds use for nesting are giving way to tubular pillars. Rotors are larger and spin more slowly, making them easier for birds to see and avoid.

Associated Press
Turbines Could Signal State's Energy Future
Capital Press, October 20, 2006

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