Wind May Keep Rancher Afloat
by Mateusz Perkowski
Capital Press, September 18, 2008
Environmental groups challenge series of projects
One of the jokes Hoyt Wilson tells about his ranch is that you can tell it's breezy when cows stand on hay bales to keep their food from blowing away.
Wilson didn't think the wind on his Harney County, Ore., property would ever generate much except for tall tales.
That is, until he was approached by a renewable power developer, Columbia Energy Partners, about running some tests on the property.
He learned that the powerful gusts were no joking matter: They could keep the ranch profitable and help satisfy Oregon's appetite for clean energy.
"If you're going to stay and keep things going, you're going to need to find an income outside of cattle," Wilson said.
Wind power surge
Harney County's planning commission approved a 104-megawatt wind power project for Wilson's ranch last year.
The developer is currently building roads and preparing the ground for wind turbines, which are scheduled to be installed by autumn 2009.
Harney County expects to approve two other 104-megawatt wind projects on nearby ranches by October, and a fourth 104-megawatt project on state land is under consideration, said Brandon McMullen, the county's planning director.
Columbia Energy Partners would operate all four wind projects, if they're completed, he said.
The Harney County projects could provide a huge boost to Oregon's wind energy industry, increasing the state's 964-megawatt wind power capacity by 43 percent, based on data from the American Wind Energy Association.
Oregon is currently the seventh-largest wind energy producer in the U.S., according to the association.
Much of the wind energy development in Oregon is concentrated in the Columbia River Gorge, which is windiest in spring and summer, said Chris Crowley, president of Columbia Energy Partners.
Installing turbines in Harney County, which is windiest in fall and winter, would extend the industry's power generation capacity throughout the year, he said.
"It's a gigantic benefit to have geographic and resource diversity," said Crowley.
Wilson said he hopes the investment in wind power will help reinvigorate Harney County and other areas in rural Oregon, which have struggled due to diminished logging on federal lands.
"Without an economy of some kind, you can't provide even the basic functions like schools and roads," he said.
Proposals draw scrutiny
However, the fact that one developer is behind numerous projects in the Steens Mountain area, which is known for wildlife, has come under scrutiny from environmental groups.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association, the Audubon Society of Portland and the Nature Conservancy have all raised alarm about the projects, largely because they suspect Columbia Energy Partners is trying to avoid state oversight.
In Oregon, development of wind projects 105 megawatts or larger must be supervised by the state's Energy Facility Siting Council. Smaller projects fall under county jurisdiction.
By proposing four separate 104-megawatt projects in close proximity to each other, the developer is actually trying to build a 400-megawatt wind power facility while circumventing state regulations, according to ONDA and the Audubon Society of Portland.
"No matter how desirable the project might be, Harney County should not be a party to Columbia Energy Partners' effort to evade the clear jurisdiction of the EFSC," according to a letter from the two groups to Harney County's planning commission.
The Nature Conservancy also weighed in on the proposals in a letter, requesting that the commission delay approval of the wind projects until further studies are done.
"Without adequate wildlife or vegetation maps and surveys, or (a) proposed mitigation plan prepared by a professional biologist ... we believe county planners lack sufficient information to make an informed decision," wrote Garth Fuller, the group's Eastern Oregon conservation director.
Columbia Energy Partners' plans also caught the attention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which urged the planning commission to postpone two of the projects due to possible negative effects on migratory birds and sage grouse habitat.
The Oregon Department of Energy, meanwhile, notified the planning commission that it would "need additional information to determine if these projects are in fact fully separate."
Even if the projects are deemed separate, they may still be subject to state supervision if they "have the effects of a magnitude similar to a single larger jurisdictional project," according to a letter from the agency.
Despite these concerns, it appears most of the wind projects will move forward.
Development is already in progress on Wilson's property, and the planning commission voted in favor of two other projects on private ranches in August, though the decision won't become official until later in September or October, said McMullen, Harney County's planning director.
The allegation that Harney County is allowing Columbia Energy Partners to bypass Oregon regulations is unfounded, he said.
The developer must abide by dozens of conditions to complete the projects, including fire protection measures, erosion control practices, road maintenance and cooperation with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, McMullen said.
"The conditions specify how the (project) approval is carried out," he said.
Chris Crowley, president of Columbia Energy Partners, said there are legitimate reasons for developing four smaller sites, rather than one large one.
It's simply easier to design, build and repair separate 104-megawatt projects, he said.
"It gives you a good chunk of power to market, (and) it is a manageable-sized project to maintain," Crowley said.
Under the state's energy plant siting regulations, the projects are clearly separate from one another, according to Columbia Energy Partners.
"Each project has different underlying land lease agreements with different parties, different terms and different inherent risks than any other project," according to a company memorandum. "Each project will be electrically independent from the others and will utilize its own supporting facilities."
It should also be remembered that economic interests don't exclude social or environmental considerations, said Crowley.
Though Hoyt Wilson said that he would have preferred to keep his land in an "old school" primitive condition, the wind turbines will preserve the ranch financially for the next generation.
Making a living in rural Oregon is tough these days, and renewable energy may provide an economic lifeline without disrupting agriculture, he said.
"It'll have a zero impact on our grazing operations," he said.
Until now, financially strapped farmers and ranchers have often turned to development, which consumes both farmland and wildlife habitat, Crowley said. The wind provides another alternative, he said.
"It keeps them from breaking it into 160-acre ranchettes," Crowley said. "It keeps these large tracts intact."
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