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"Big Question Mark" on Wind Project

by Steven Friederich
The Daily World, May 11, 2010

Commissioners hesitant to shell out another $1.3M

Grays Harbor PUD commissioners are considering walking away from a three-year planning process involving the Radar Ridge wind farm in Pacific County, citing uncertainty over regulatory approval.

On Monday, the commissioners said they were unwilling to shell out another $1.37 million for pre-construction costs without having a firmer idea that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service won't oppose their permits.

The PUD Commission tabled the issue, asked PUD General Manager Rick Lovely to contact congressional leaders for help and to bring back more information for next week's PUD meeting, slated for 4:30 p.m., Monday in the PUD Commission chambers.

Lovely said as far as he's concerned, the Grays Harbor PUD's participation with the wind farm now has a "big question mark" hanging over it.

The Grays Harbor PUD has a 49 percent stake in the project. The consortium of public utilities also includes the public utility districts in Pacific County, Mason County and Clallam County. Energy Northwest, a non-profit, joint operating agency that provides electricity at cost to public utilities and municipalities, is spearheading the project.

The planning costs for the project were originally estimated at 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

Grays Harbor has already spent $845,250 in pre-construction costs. Energy Northwest, which has been spearheading the effort, has asked Grays Harbor for an additional $1.375 million.

The consortium met last week to talk about the project.

Grays Harbor PUD Commissioner Truman Seely said he walked away unimpressed because he still had a lot of questions and not a lot of answers.

Mason County PUD No. 3 and Pacific County PUD have authorized the additional spending, Seely said. Clallam County PUD has abstained from the current process, Seely said.

At issue is a small endangered seabird known as the marbled murrelet. There's concern with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife that as many as 32 turbines at a height of 262 feet each might somehow affect the birds. Groups such as Seattle Audubon, Discovery Coast Audubon in Long Beach have already said it would.

The consortium of public power agencies had been considering a new $500,000 technology known as Merlin, which detects when marbled murrelets are flying close, sends a loud noise to distract the birds and can shut down the turbine blades.

But even with that technology in place, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service could still rule that the marbled murrelet would be impacted and practically void the project. A proposed memorandum of understanding between the federal agency and the PUD consortium allows too much wiggle room, Seely said.

That makes PUD Commissioners Seely and Russ Skolrood nervous.

"We need a lot more information," Skolrood said.

"To construct this thing, it would cost $100 million -- and we have too many questions at this point for that kind of investment," Seely said. "That's awfully, awfully big. It's an awful big commitment when everything is so uncertain."

PUD Commissioner Tom Casey wasn't at Monday's meeting, but did call in via speaker phone and agreed that the issue should be tabled.

Steven Friederich
Daily World writer Mike Marsh contributed to this story.
"Big Question Mark" on Wind Project
The Daily World, May 11, 2010

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