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A Lot of Hot Air? 

by Kevin Taylor & r & A proposal to build a modest industrial wind farm near Reardan, Wash., with roughly three-dozen power-generating windmills, appears to be breezing toward reality even as a larger debate swirls around the energy source itself.


A hearing is tentatively scheduled for late October to grant a conditional-use permit to Energy Northwest (a nonprofit consortium of public utility districts) to construct the wind farm on two buttes south of Reardan. If all goes as planned, it could be running next year.


If the project is built, it would supply no more than 50 megawatts to the Northwest's power grid. One of the customers could be Spokane's Avista Utilities, which recently announced it intends to substantially boost the amount of wind-generated electricity that flows through its system.


Do these developments place our region on the cutting edge of "green energy"? Or does it mean we fall into the trap of buying a bird-killing, overpriced and unreliable energy source?


The answer -- before we all gather in a circle and sing Kumbaya -- is somewhere in between.


The Sierra Club once called wind turbines "Cuisinarts of the sky." It was a great sound bite, and like most sound bites was vivid, memorable and wrong.


Twenty years ago, one of the nation's first large-scale wind farms, built at Altamont Pass in California, was indeed knocking birds out of the sky faster than former Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield (who once took out a seagull with a throw from the field in Toronto and was arrested after the game on animal cruelty charges) or Randy Johnson (who once exploded a dove with a fastball).


The design of Altamont Pass was such a fiasco that a lot of lessons were learned in a hurry, and bird or bat mortality has rarely been an issue since.


Indeed, Energy Northwest has spent 18 months doing bird surveys. Washington Fish and Game biologists say the proposed site gets high use by raptors in winter, including rare gyrfalcons down from the Arctic. The agency plans a careful review of the project's design.


Turbines now have tubular bases so birds can't perch on them. There are no guy wires, and power lines are buried. Turbine blades are longer and spin more slowly, eliminating the "strobe effect" which created the illusion for birds that the blades were not moving.


One of the main objections people voice these days about wind farms -- from Cape Cod to Kittitas -- is aesthetics, which seems almost petty in light of looming energy crises.


A planned offshore wind farm near Cape Cod is opposed by some residents there, who call it unsightly. Seattle residents with second homes east of the Cascades have in recent years opposed a wind farm near Ellensburg because it would spoil the view, news accounts say.


"Different people have different aesthetic tastes," says H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow with a nonpartisan think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis. "Some people think windmills are beautiful designs. I've seen them and I think they're fascinating. Others think they're a blight."


Burnett is critical, not so much of wind-generated electricity, but of the claims made by the industry -- claims, he contends, that are overblown.


"Renewable energy promoters claim that wind power is cheap, safe and 'green.' These claims are untrue," Burnett writes in the introduction of his 2003 analysis titled Wind Power: Red Not Green.


The growth in wind power, at least in the United States, is fanned by federal subsidies and by mandates, in states such as Washington, to have a certain percentage of energy come from renewable sources.


The mandate is what's driving Energy Northwest and Avista to pursue wind power. Without these crutches, windmills would topple, Burnett says.


He points out that when a federal tax credit of nearly two cents a kilowatt-hour expired in 2003, wind-power projects ground nearly to a halt. The subsidy, since reinstated, brings the cost of wind power into the range of 7 cents per kilowatt-hour. This becomes somewhat competitive with prices for spot-market electricity that typically run 3.5 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, Burnett writes.


"As a regulated utility, we are obligated to find the most cost-effective resources," Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof says. "Fortunately, wind is becoming more and more reliable. But cost is an issue: Wind is subsidized."


The latest energy bill extends the subsidy only for another year.


Reliability is a bigger issue.


"When you turn on your blow dryer in the morning, you want it to work." Imhof says. "If half our power came from wind, say 500 average megawatts, and if the wind suddenly stopped, we'd have to find that 500 average megawatts from some other source."


This is one of Burnett's biggest criticisms of the wind industry. The "intermittency" of wind power -- turbines don't produce on calm days and, for safety reasons, are shut down in high winds -- means that fossil fuel plants never go offline, Burnett says, but are kept running in case they are needed as backup. Thus, wind power does virtually nothing to make our air cleaner, he says.
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