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Projects are Pumping More Wind Power

by Michelle Cole, Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, July 30, 2001

TOUCHET, Wash. -- Weary workers pour into the Seed House Saloon every day about 6 p.m. and settle onto bar stools covered in worn white vinyl smooth as leather seats in a Jaguar convertible. Crumpled dollar bills tacked to the ceiling look as though they've been there a while, but the snapshots taped to the wall are new.

They've been tracking the progress of dozens of wind turbines sprouting on a brown ridge about three miles southwest of Touchet. When the wind project -- dubbed Stateline -- is finished, nearly 400 turbines will straddle the Washington and Oregon border.

The 250-foot-tall towers are highly visible reminders of a growing demand for power in the West -- and a sign that the region is increasingly turning to alternatives to coal, natural gas and hydroelectric power. With the exception of Texas, more wind-generating power projects are under way in the Northwest than anywhere in the country.

A few people in Walla Walla County have complained that the towering machines ruin their big sky view, but no one in Touchet is complaining, Pat Ingham says. "It has helped my business," says Ingham, who has owned the saloon with her husband for 14 years. "We don't have much here."

A few years ago, the future looked bleak for Touchet (pronounced "Tooshie" by the locals). Walla Walla County is famous for its onions, but in this town alfalfa seed was the reigning crop. Then the main seed buyer went bankrupt and nobody got paid.

Today there's a rush hour at the saloon. A new sandwich shop opened on the corner of U.S. 12. There's hope that, with the wind turbines, a new era has arrived for Touchet and the region.

The project has created hundreds of construction jobs in the rural county. Once it's complete, it will provide eight to 15 full-time jobs and four to seven part-time jobs.

Researchers have studied the feasibility of large-scale wind generation in the Northwest for 30 years, but only now such projects are getting built -- for a number of reasons:

"This is the moment," said Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based advocacy group. "This is what we have lived for." The challenge now, Shimshak said, is to see that all the wind projects on the drawing boards actually get on the ground.

U.S. behind on wind power Germany produces more than twice the wind power generated in the United States, but the United States is playing a fast game of catch-up. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that wind-generated power in the United States will grow from 2,554 megawatts to more than 4,500 megawatts by the end of this year.

In the Northwest, wind projects capable of putting 740 megawatts online are under construction or in the permit stage, and the BPA has signed pre-development agreements on facilities that would add an additional 830 megawatts.

If they are all completed, they will supply enough power to serve two cities the size of Portland with the city of Salem thrown in. If every project the BPA has in the works is built, the nation's wind-power capacity will increase by 20 percent.

For sheer wind-generating potential, other parts of the country are superior to the Northwest.

"There's enough wind potential in three states, the Dakotas and Texas, to provide all the electricity the United States uses today," said Randall Swisher, executive director of the Washington-based American Wind Energy Association.

Unlike other power-generating resources that can be turned on and off, wind power isn't 100 percent reliable 100 percent of the time. But technology has brought wind power a long way in just 20 years.

With new software, redesigned airfoils and variable-pitch blades, a turbine can make use of slower wind speeds. More and better weather data also are available, making it possible to predict when the wind will blow.

The data give a fairly accurate picture of when and how steady the wind will blow throughout the year. In fact, Stambler said, wind power generation is more predictable than the hydropower system.

Better technology and a greater ability to predict windy weather have helped lower the cost of wind-generated power. In the 1980s, wind-generated power cost about 50 cents per kilowatt-hour to generate. Today, the cost averages closer to 5 cents and can be as low as 3 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Today wind accounts for less than 1 percent of the power consumed in the Northwest. About 54 percent of the region's electricity comes from hydropower, 32 percent from coal, 8 percent from gas and oil, and 3 percent from nuclear. All renewable power resources, including wind, account for about 3 percent.

"I'd like to see Oregon be a state where half the power is renewable power," said Thor Hinckley, manager of renewable power for Portland General Electric. "Give me 20 years and it's possible."

Wind works for farmers In 1998, the region's first utility-scale wind-generating projects went online at the Vansycle Ridge just outside Helix, 17 miles north of Pendleton. The landscape is a patchwork of rolling wheat fields and dark brown patches of earth left fallow to collect enough moisture to grow a crop the next year.

FPL Energy, one of the nation's largest developers and operators of wind energy projects, built 28 turbines on land homesteaded in 1878 by Royal Raymond's grandfather, Phael Raymond. The company built another 10 turbines on Glen Brogoitti's nearby ranch, homesteaded in 1898 by his mother's father.

Aside from the turbines' towering height, the hum of the generators and the whoosh of the blades, Raymond said he hardly notices them anymore. Each turbine sits on less than one-quarter acre, and Raymond farms within six to eight feet of the towers. Brogoitti's biggest complaint is the gawkers, people who stop on his private land to take a look.

Both farmers receive about $2,000 a year per turbine in royalty payments. It's not enough money to retire on, but with the price of fertilizer up nearly 50 percent, Brogoitti said, the extra income helps.

"It's also important to us as far as the environment is concerned," he said. "It's about as clean a source of energy as you can get. And most farmers are environmentalists, to a point."

But wind generators aren't completely benign.

Turbines erected on Altamont Pass, east of California's San Francisco Bay area, made mincemeat of hawks, golden eagles and other predatory birds in the 1980s. Since then, wind projects have been redesigned and situated to minimize bird deaths.

A 12-month survey on Raymond's farm found that the 28 Vansycle turbines killed six bats, two quail or pheasant and two sparrows. Two bats, five or six birds and one brown-tailed hawk were killed by turbines on the Brogoitti farm during a 12-month period.

"There are more birds killed on the highway in Umatilla County than with turbines," Brogoitti said.

Wildlife surveys on the Stateline project -- within sight of the Vansycle turbines -- turned up a colony of Washington ground squirrels, which are listed as an endangered species in Oregon but not in Washington. As a result, FPL Energy scaled back the number of turbines on the Oregon side of the project.

Word that a squirrel would interfere with the wind project didn't sit well in the Seed House Saloon. Scaling back for a squirrel is silly, Ingham said. "Progress shouldn't stop."

Michelle Cole, Oregonian staff
Projects are Pumping More Wind Power
The Oregonian, July 30, 2001

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