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Gust of Wind Power

Mark Ohrenschall & Cassandra Sweet
Con.Web, January 30, 2003

Two Developers Propose Central Washington Wind Projects
Totaling 362 MW Capacity

Two wind energy projects totaling nearly 362 megawatts of potential capacity have been formally proposed for central Washington's Kittitas County.

But the developers are taking very different routes in seeking government approval for their prospective wind farms, one of which has already generated local opposition.

Zilkha Renewable Energy in mid-January filed a site certification application with the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council for an approximately 181.5-MW-capacity wind project between Ellensburg and Cle Elum. This marks the first time a wind developer has sought EFSEC endorsement, as allowed under revised state law. EFSEC recommendations are forwarded to Gov. Gary Locke, who has the final say.

The Texas-based company scratched plans to seek Kittitas County permission for the project after county commissioners changed the process for reviewing wind farms. But some Kittitas County officials and citizens believe the EFSEC path will diminish local influence on consideration of this wind farm proposal, which has been locally controversial.

Meanwhile, California-based enXco in late January applied to Kittitas County for approval of a proposed 180-MW-capacity wind project north of Ellensburg, near the proposed Zilkha site.

If approved and built to full capacity, these projects together would exceed the current 300-MW capacity of Stateline Wind Energy Center in southeastern Washington. These also would be the closest large-scale wind farms to metropolitan western Washington.

Neither of these projects is likely to start spinning out electrons before 2004, at the earliest.

Zilkha's Proposed Wind Project
Zilkha publicly announced plans for a Kittitas County wind project in April, anticipating maximum capacity of 250 MW from turbines installed on ridges some 12 miles northwest of Ellensburg.

Zilkha Renewable Energy's proposed wind farm site. (Courtesy of Zilkha Renewable Energy) Zilkha touted the site's strong winds, ready access to transmission lines, power markets and roads, lack of significant environmental issues, and substantial economic development benefits for Kittitas County, in property tax revenues, lease payments to landowners and construction jobs. "We believe this has the potential to be one of the premier wind sites in the Northwest," Zilkha project manager Chris Taylor told Con.WEB (see Con.WEB, May 31, 2002).

But some local opposition to Zilkha's proposal quickly emerged, and the wind farm plan has become the topic of extensive and impassioned local debate.

"Unlike virtually every other wind farm in the United States, which are typically located in remote areas, Zilkha wants to build on the doorstep of a residential community (this area is not farmland), only 7 miles from a city of 10,000 people, on the highest ridges of an area prized for its great scenic beauty," wrote Geoff Saunders, spokesman for Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines, in a recent e-mail to Con.WEB. "This county depends to a large degree on tourism, and there is no doubt that a large industrial project in a formerly scenic area will damage tourist revenues. This area is also environmentally fragile and home to a wide range of birds, animals and fish, whose habitat will be disturbed or worse." Local landowners who don't lease to Zilkha face "all of the problems of living next to a huge industrial project but no compensation."

Zilkha Seeks State Approval
EnXco's proposed wind farm site. (Courtesy of enXco) Zilkha initially planned to seek approval from Kittitas County, which at the time allowed wind farms to be reviewed as conditional uses in Agriculture-20 and Forest & Range zones, which cover the entire proposed site. But after months of deliberation and a temporary moratorium on wind farm development applications, the county commissioners in December changed the process for considering wind proposals.

Commissioners now have the final word, not the Board of Adjustment. The new wind process requires a development agreement with standards, a site-specific comprehensive plan amendment and a zoning change to a wind resource overlay district, according to county planner Clay White. Environmental review also is included. Each wind farm application will be reviewed by the county Planning Commission, which will make a recommendation to the three commissioners.

Zilkha officials believe the county's new rules are unreasonably burdensome and open the door for delays and multiple appeals, Taylor said. "With the new ordinance the county passed we went from a [conditional use permit]-type process, which most other wind farms have been permitted under, to a more complicated process," Taylor said. "We don't want to wait five years" to build the project.

These alterations prompted Zilkha to take advantage of a revised state law and pursue state approval of the proposed Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project

A bill passed by the state Legislature in 2001 allows developers of alternative energy resources of any size to apply to EFSEC for state review of their projects. At the end of its review--which includes public meetings, independent experts, environmental impact statements and formal hearings--EFSEC will forward a recommendation to the governor, who makes the final decision, according to a council news release.

Zilkha is looking forward to state review of its wind farm proposal, said Taylor. "We think EFSEC has some advantages" over Kittitas County, Taylor said. "They've reviewed a lot of projects. This is simple for them."

EFSEC managers, accustomed to reviewing applications for gas-fired combustion turbine proposals, are anxious to review their first wind project application. "We're excited to look at it," said Allen Fiksdal, an EFSEC manager. "The differences between combustion turbine projects and wind are big; for example, there are no air emissions or water issues to deal with."

EFSEC plans a public information meeting in Ellensburg in early March. Fiksdal said EFSEC could submit a recommendation to Gov. Locke by year's end.

Some Kittitas County officials and residents, however, are leery of the EFSEC process and its minimal local representation. EFSEC has an appointed chair, five state agency representatives and potentially four others, along with some local government representation from the affected area, the news release said.

"It's a business decision and that's [Zilkha's] right," said Kittitas commissioner Perry Huston, quoted in the The Daily Record newspaper. "But in my opinion it puts local citizens in a far lesser position to have local control over the project. Zilkha is looking for the easiest way to do it." Although he acknowledged some local input to EFSEC, "We, the county, would have a much better process and a more thorough and fair one. And the decision would rest on county elected officials." Commissioner Bruce Coe called Zilkha's plans "the litigative path of least resistance," as quoted in the newspaper.

Saunders thinks Zilkha is "completely bypass[ing]" the county, and has "demonstrated what little regard the company has for the wishes of residents and local officials." He labeled it "a deeply cynical move."

EnXco's Plans
EnXco has prospected for wind development sites in Kittitas County for some time. On Jan. 29, it announced plans for a 180-MW project, dubbed Desert Claim , about eight miles north of Ellensburg.

An enXco news release lauded the site's "sufficient commercial wind resource" (measured over two years), easy access to transmission, large power markets and existing roads, "no apparent environmental constraints," and continuing availability for agricultural and rural residential use. The proposed location lies on the northern portion of the Kittitas Valley, where it starts to rise into mountains, project manager David Steeb told Con.WEB. He said his company has agreements with eight private landowners for the entire proposed site, encompassing 5,237 acres.

Although enXco is seeking county approval to erect 120 turbines and associated infrastructure, "The market will determine whether we build it in phases," he said. EnXco has touched base with Northwest publicly owned and investor-owned utilities, as well as Bonneville Power Administration. "Our discussions with utilities cover a wide range, from initial contact to very detailed discussions," he said, but nothing is ready for public announcement.

The company "intends not only to develop and construct the wind farm, but to also operate it for the life of the project," the news release said.

Steeb said EnXco's development timeline depends on the county process. White said county review could take months before the commissioners make a decision, perhaps longer if an environmental impact statement is needed. He declined to speculate on potential controversy over enXco's proposal, other than to note some people don't like huge turbines rising more than 100 yards high.

"I can't comment on how people view our competitor's proposal," said Steeb. "We believe we've reflected a good site and a site that supports a good wind project."

Saunders said he hadn't yet examined enXco's application, although he praised the company for "trying to do this the right way," through a local process. But he expressed concern Kittitas County would become an "eyesore" and "an industrial wasteland" if the wind farm proposals are approved.

More Information:

Mark Ohrenschall and Cassandra Sweet
Gust of Wind Power
Con.Web - January 30, 2003

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