Potential Ground Vibration Impacts
Local officials have rejected a proposed mega-wind farm in south-central Washington, primarily on the grounds that turbine vibrations could affect highly sensitive gravitational research at nearby scientific facilities.
However, the Benton County Board of Adjustment's Feb. 5 decision against the planned 494-megawatt-capacity Maiden Wind Farm may not be the final word. As of late February project developer Washington Winds was seeking a way to put the matter before the Board of Benton County Commissioners.
"That would be the next step, really the only next step if there's going to be a project in Benton County," Washington Winds president Rick Koebbe told Con.WEB Feb. 9.
In denying a conditional-use permit for the proposed wind farm about 15 miles north of Prosser, the county Board of Adjustment concluded ground vibrations from Maiden turbines could interfere with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and the Battelle Gravitation Physics Laboratory on the nearby Hanford Site. LIGO is about 6 miles distant from Maiden's proposed site, and Battelle about 12 miles.
The Benton adjusters had requested more study on potential vibrations from Maiden, said county senior planner Mike Shuttleworth. But Washington Winds said no, calling that unwarranted and too costly, and declaring further research would generate perpetually inconclusive results.
But in the absence of such information, however, the Board of Adjustment "couldn't conclusively say [Maiden] won't impact" the scientific research facilities, Shuttleworth told Con.WEB. The three board members present Feb. 5 voted unanimously against the Maiden permit, he said, finding it incompatible with surrounding land uses.
Koebbe harshly criticized the action: "These board of adjusters didn't take the facts into consideration when they made their decision." He said Maiden would comply with siting guidelines for the scientific facilities, which are already affected by other ground vibration sources.
LIGO's top official told Con.WEB the proposed wind farm's unknown potential to affect his observatory's leading-edge scientific research puts at risk a $400 million-plus taxpayer-funded investment. "The location of so large a facility so close to what are arguably the most vibration-sensitive scientific facilities in the United States immediately causes alarm," said observatory head Fred Raab.
Without more knowledge of Maiden's impacts, "We can't allow that to go forward," he said.
Shuttleworth said Board of Adjustment rulings are final for the county, although appealable to state Superior Court for Benton and Franklin counties.
"We don't want to [appeal to the court], because we really just don't want to get into litigation," Koebbe said in late February. "Because it's a political issue ... we're trying to work through the county commissioners and what they can do to put it in their purview." He said those discussions were continuing, as of Feb. 25.
Should Benton County ultimately deny Maiden, Koebbe said Washington Winds would not pursue legal avenues. "My opinion is, if the county doesn't want us to be here, I'm not going to litigate this issue," he said.
A "very small piece" of the proposed Maiden site lies in Yakima County, but "the project's not feasible if you don't get the Benton County part approved," he said.
The Board of Adjustment's decision was based on information presented by LIGO and Battelle, Shuttleworth said. LIGO--a joint project of California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sponsored by the National Science Foundation--is located on what Raab called "among the quietest sites vibrationally in the United States." Both LIGO and the Battelle lab came to south-central Washington after extensive searches, he said.
"Basically what we do is we look for gravitational waves ... traveling warpages of space given off when you have really titanic violent collisions of things in space," such as merging black holes or exploding stars, he explained.
LIGO scientists are looking to understand the workings of gravity, "and how that fits into models of basic forces in the universe, the origins of the structure of the universe that we see today."
How sensitive is LIGO's work? "We use laser beams to survey the space between two suspended mirrors 2.5 miles apart in two perpendicular directions," said Raab. Over that distance, a cosmic gravitational wave generates a distortion no greater than one-tenth of one-billionth of a human hair's diameter.
Raab said he and colleagues were concerned about vibrations from "a major industrial facility," the proposed Maiden wind project.
Federal and state environmental review of the project "didn't adequately address the vibration impacts," Shuttleworth said, so the adjusters asked Washington Winds for a supplemental environmental impact statement on that topic.
The company declined. "It wouldn't do any good," said Koebbe. A Washington Winds news release said "the additional studies are unwarranted, would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and would result in providing no useful answers to the County."
Further study of vibration impacts could be endlessly refuted by LIGO and Battelle, according to Koebbe. "There's an infinite number of input variables into a vibration study," he said. These include turbine locations, numbers, size and foundation depths, as well as wind speeds and distances from the facilities, the company's news release said.
Raab said land characteristics and equipment specifications are two key variables in assessing vibration impacts.
Many other sources of ground vibration exist in the area, including the 1,150-MW-capacity Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant and a vitrification plant on the Hanford Site, plus the Nine Canyon Wind Farm near Kennewick, Washington Winds said.
However, Shuttleworth said Benton County has no jurisdiction over Hanford facilities, and Nine Canyon is much farther away from the two scientific facilities than Maiden.
"It's distance and size," said Raab of his worries about Maiden. "There's no other density that high that close. That's the real issue."
Washington Winds, a subsidiary of Boise-based Pacific Winds, also contends Maiden would lie outside the recommended minimum four-mile buffer from LIGO and Battelle for rotating power plant equipment.
Raab said those guidelines--which he wrote in a memo some years ago--apply to plants with a few pieces, not several hundred wind turbines.
The wind energy developer offered to spend at least $500,000 to put insulators on vibration-sensitive equipment at the facilities, according to Koebbe. But this offer was not accepted, he said.
It is possible to mitigate vibrations if the levels are known in detail, according to Raab. But he said such equipment is not commercially available, and would require $5 million to $10 million to create, design and install--and the latter phase would shut down LIGO for several months.
A "secondary issue" for the county involved a local elk herd, Shuttleworth said. Maiden could further displace these elk, although specific potential impacts weren't clear.
"The elk herd is a major problem now," said Koebbe, and would be with or without Maiden. "It has nothing to do with our project."
"In the end, Benton County officials are making political decisions that scientific experiments are more important than clean, renewable energy from the Maiden wind farm that would bring about $400 million of local economic benefits to the people of Benton County," Koebbe said in the news release.
Shuttleworth told Con.WEB last year that both sets of projects entail a $400 million investment. "We don't want to have one [project] come in and make the other one unusable," he said.
Washington Winds had hoped to begin construction in summer 2003 on what would be, at full proposed capacity, the world's largest single wind farm. But county approval is needed to arrange financing and power purchasing, Koebbe said last year.
Bonneville Power Administration helped develop Maiden's environmental impact statement and has an option to buy power from up to 400 MW of Maiden capacity. But a BPA official has said the agency isn't in the market for wind, given its financial predicaments and lack of need for new resources. "It's not likely we'd execute the power purchase agreement or execute our option," BPA's Tom Osborn told Con.WEB in August.
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