by Dan Egan
The prevailing winds blow steady out of the west over Vansycle Ridge just southwest of Walla Walla, Wash. Part of that ridge runs through the 4,000-acre ranch owned by Royal Raymond, whose grandfather homesteaded the property as a dry-land wheat farmer and cattle rancher. On a gray St. Patrick's Day, Raymond steers his truck, with a "Save a Salmon, Eat More Beef" bumper sticker, up a dirt road. Stopping at the highest point on the ridge, it's easy to recognize what his grandfather saw in this property. Facing north, the entire Walla Walla Valley lays out in front of you, fresh snow covers the Blue Mountains to the south, and looking left a series of ridges lead your eye to an elbow of the Columbia River as it corners westward.
Today, Raymond still carries on the family business but has added a new title to his resume: This third generation wheat farmer has become a first generation wind farmer.
"Governor Locke was up here last week looking at these," he says, pointing at one of the towering wind turbines on his property. Looking like a garden of giant pinwheels, 28 wind turbines line a two-mile stretch of ridgeline where they harvest the steady 13 to 18 mile-per-hour winds into clean, renewable energy.
"They just use what's going by," says Raymond.
Leasing his land to a Florida developer, FPL Energy, three years ago as part of Oregon's first wind plant, Vansycle Wind Plant, Raymond became a pioneer of sorts in the area. He was one of the people who helped set the stage for a new wind energy project currently under construction just a few miles away on the Oregon-Washington border.
The new wind farm -- called The Stateline Wind Generating Project -- will be the largest single wind energy project in the world. It will use some 450 state-of-the-art wind turbines churning out 300 megawatts of electricity, each year, on average -- that's enough energy to power about 80,000 homes, or half of Spokane County.
Located on privately owned hilltops and ridges just south of U.S. Highway 12, between the towns of Touchet and Wallula, the entire Stateline project is expected to come on line by the end of this year.
Each wind turbine is 166 feet tall, nearly twice the height of the Riverfront Park clock tower, with three rotating blades. Each blade is 77 feet long, making the diameter of their rotating pathway 154 feet. The turbines can generate power at wind speeds from seven to 56 mph. At higher speeds, they automatically shut down -- a feature that allows them to withstand hurricane-force winds without breaking down. A total of 300 turbines will be on the Washington side, with 150 turbines spinning on the Oregon side of the border.
FPL, which is based in Juno Beach, Fla., will build, own and operate the new wind farm. FPL is the nation's largest producer of wind-generated electricity, and it owns and operates the two largest solar energy facilities in the world. The company has power plants in 12 states, and 80 percent of its energy production comes from clean fuel sources, such as natural gas, wind, hydro and solar power.
PacifiCorp Power Marketing, a non-regulated subsidiary of the Portland-based utility PacifiCorp, signed a 25-year contract to purchase 100 percent of the output from the wind farm and will market the energy to wholesale customers throughout the West.
"This is an example of how alternative energy sources can benefit the Northwest," said Washington's Governor Gary Locke in a January statement. "This facility will help meet the increasing demand for electricity in our region while providing economic development to Eastern Washington. Wind powered energy is both cost competitive with gas, and friendlier to the environment. This is exactly the sort of innovation we need in the Pacific Northwest today."
Western Energy Crisis
With rolling blackouts in California and drought conditions in the Northwest, the entire West is bracing for the worst energy crisis since bell-bottoms and Chico and the Man were popular. At present, the price of natural gas is more than three times the price it was last year at this time.
According to the Northwest Planning Council, the demand for electricity in the Northwest has grown 24 percent in the past decade, while the generating capacity has grown by only 4 percent, creating a serious gap between supply and demand.
In early January, when California was fighting almost daily with potential (and real) blackouts, the federal government ordered Oregon and Washington to make available emergency rations of their precious Columbia River hydropower.
To produce the extra electricity, the two states drew down reservoirs earlier than usual, using water needed to both supply power to their own populations and to provide flows for endangered salmon migration.
This scenario has caused a little tension between the states, prompting Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., to say that Californians are just using electricity "for their hot tubs," as they continue to pay less for it than the people in the Northwest. Factor in California with the lack of water behind the dams (snow pack runoff is expected to be only 68 percent of normal this year), and the power picture for the coming year looks even worse.
Facing a long, dry summer, utilities are scrambling to find new energy sources. Wind energy has attracted increasing attention in recent years, as the fastest growing energy source worldwide, expanding at an average of 32 percent annually over the past five years.
"We are just beginning to recognize its potential," says Randall Swisher, executive director of American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). "By tapping its vast wind resources, America can boost its electricity supply by 10 to 20 percent without additional air pollution or emissions of global warming gases, and at the same time get affordable insurance against volatile energy prices. Some utilities are starting to do the numbers and realize that wind energy is smart business."
Like the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which in February announced that it wants more than 1,000 megawatts of wind energy -- and wants it fast -- to help alleviate the regional power shortage. BPA quickly signed up as one of the purchasers of the electricity from the Stateline Wind Project.
George Darr, who manages BPA's program to develop new renewable energy resources, says this commitment makes a significant statement. "It says that Bonneville believes that large scale commercial wind power facilities may be producing power cheap enough to be competitive with other resources currently on the market."
Swisher agrees: "This takes wind energy to a whole new level in the Pacific Northwest and the United States. What BPA is saying is that wind energy has arrived as a recognized source of bulk electrical supply." He adds that BPA's solicitation amounts to roughly $1 billion in new business for the wind industry.
Currently, wind power accounts for about 1 percent of the power supplied to the Pacific Northwest, where hydropower is king. Water generates about two-thirds of the region's electricity, with coal adding about 21 percent and natural gas about 9 percent, according to the Northwest Planning Council.
Industry experts say wind could potentially supply up to 20 percent of the region's energy, and a 1999 study contended that wind energy could meet up to 10 percent of the world's electricity demands by 2020.
The Department of Energy, under the Clinton administration, announced the Wind Powering America initiative, which calls for wind power to meet at least 5 percent of the nation's electricity needs by 2020. Currently wind accounts for about 1 percent nationally.
Benefits of Wind
Wind power has always made sense environmentally, but the problem in the past was, that with its high price tag, it couldn't compete with coal, gas and hydropower. However, the cost of producing electricity from wind energy has declined by more than 80 percent since the 1980s, from about 38 cents per kilowatt-hour to a new low of 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.
Cheaper than both natural gas and coal, wind is second only to hydropower as an affordable energy source.
Another factor spurring the new interest in wind is the global push to reduce emissions of pollution and greenhouse gases. The United States is still one of the most energy consuming -- and polluting -- countries in the world. The U.S. has been heavily criticized by the European Union for what the Union perceives as an unwillingness to address the problem of greenhouse gases and emissions in general.
Currently, two-thirds of the electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning emission-producing fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil. Not only do wind turbines not produce emissions, they actually reduce the amount that exists.
According to the AWEA, a single turbine like those at the Stateline project, will displace emissions of 1,100 tons of carbon dioxide (the leading greenhouse gas), six tons of sulfur dioxide (the leading component of acid rain), and four tons of nitrogen oxide (the leading component of smog) every year.
In comparison, 375 acres of forest would be needed to absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide.
For depressed rural communities and struggling farmers, wind can also help power the local economy. Farmers like Raymond get between $1,500 and $2,000 per turbine in annual lease-payments from developers, while they can still grow wheat and let his cattle graze right up to the base of the turbine.
"It's a win-win situation," says Raymond.
And there are many more boons to the local community, according to wind power supporters like Rhys Roth, the director of Climate Solutions, a public interest group based in Olympia. Roth coordinated a recent conference in Spokane on wind development in rural communities.
"There're some tremendous economic opportunities for land owners and rural communities in wind power," he says. "Since the conference, we've had about 80 rural land owners who've called wanting more information on how they can take the first steps to become producers of clean energy. The time has come. Wind is the resource to look at to solve the energy crunch."
George Darr of BPA, who attends local public hearings in communities slated for new wind projects, says the No. 1 comment he hears is, "How do I get one of those turbines on my property?"
Developers also pay substantial property taxes to local communities. Every 100 megawatts of wind development generates about $1 million in property tax revenue, so communities like Helix, Ore., and Touchet, Wash., will profit heavily from the 300 megawatt Stateline project.
Another promise is that of jobs, as in hiring locals for construction, operation and maintenance of the project. A recent study found that for identical amounts of energy produced, wind energy generated 27 percent more jobs than a coal plant, and 66 percent more jobs than a natural gas plant. The Stateline project will generate about 200 construction jobs and 25 permanent jobs.
Wind, by its nature, is variable, which opponents would cite as the energy form's biggest disadvantage -- it's unreliable. If there's no wind, there's no power, so it would be very tricky to rely on wind as the only power source.
Three other issues of opposition are noise, appearance and bird mortality. Older turbines were built on metal lattices which drew birds by giving them a place to roost. Many birds were killed as they collided with the fast spinning blades of these older turbines. At Altamont Pass, east of San Fancisco, Calif., a two-year study documented 182 bird deaths, of which 119 were raptors like the golden eagle. Today's turbines are smooth towers with no places for birds to perch, and they use larger blades that spin at a slower, more efficient speed.
Some people are opposed to the way the turbines look and see them as a visual blight on the landscape, while others say they're charmed by the turbines' pleasant kinetics. In Scandinavia, where wind power plants are becoming increasingly common, some are now being built offshore, both to cut down on their visibility in local neighborhoods, and to capitalize on the stronger ocean winds.
Older turbine models were quite noisy, but standing underneath a turbine on Raymond's farm, the blades are surprisingly quiet, emitting a whoosh... whoosh... whoosh... not much louder than a kite in the wind. "There's very little noise," says Raymond. "Certain times of the day or the direction of the wind, you can hear a slight hum, but that's it."
Leaving the Raymond's property, there a gray, weathered windmill still standing as a reminder of this centuries-old technology, once used to pump water and grind grain. Once a signature of the traditional rural landscape, today, with projects like the Stateline Wind Project, wind mills are finding a new prominence in the modern landscape as an energy resource that doesn't set up the jobs versus the environment scenario that rural Northwest communities have seen in the past. Maybe technology has finally come up with a solution that can benefit both.