The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. The answer is blowing in the wind.
It may not be what Dylan meant, but is wind power part of the answer to Wasco County’s energy needs – and its economic woes?
The Wasco County Court seems to think so after hearing blowing on all sides of the issue in recent weeks and months.
“Green power is where the country is going, and Wasco County wants to participate,” said judge Dan Ericksen.
That’s the basic conclusion, now that the court has had its ear bent by those who advocate for wind and other renewables, those who question state plans to require them, and those who question wind power, period.
In February, the court heard from Paul Wooden and John Arens of the Community Renewable Energy Association (CREA) – and subsequently joined Sherman and Hood River counties in this organization promoting small-scale, community wind projects.
In both February and March, it heard from Dwight Langer on North Wasco County P.U.D.’s opposition to the governor’s proposed “renewable portfolio standards” – and subsequently wrote a letter supporting the P.U.D.’s position.
And last week, it heard from Linda and Gary Casady, a couple of property-owners on Sevenmile Hill, whose opposition to the proposed Cascade Wind wind farm project there has led them to question whether wind power is all it’s cracked up to be.
“Each of the entities…have presented us their niche,” said judge Dan Ericksen. “As a county, we can accept all of those niches.”
Ericksen doesn’t necessarily see a contradiction between CREA membership and opposing renewable standards, saying the county can support both community renewables and the P.U.D.’s efforts to make sure state regulations don’t become “onerous.”
As for the concerns of the Casadys, he said most of them target national policy, which is beyond the scope of influence of the county. Meanwhile, local impacts – which the county does influence – can and will be addressed through permitting process, he said.
“We’ll support bringing those large commercial projects [to the county], and we’ll look at them on an individual basis,” Ericksen said.
He said most of the projects in Sherman County are in rural areas, avoiding the impacts on residents that would be had by the Cascade Wind project, which would place 40 1.5 megawatt turbines on Sevenmile Hill.
“We have one that’s going to be unique,” he said.
Ericksen isn’t making any guesses about how the public process for that project will play out. The state is the final decision-maker, but the county has a key advisory role, and there will be multiple local opportunities for public participation.
“I do think there will be a lot of citizen input,” he said.
Whether or not it was simply the calm before the storm, April 4’s peaceful “exchange of ideas” with Linda and Gary Casady on was clearly a welcome breeze for a court accustomed to blustering opposition.
Ericksen praised the Casadys – who spent over an hour trying to inject some doubt into commissioners’ minds – for being proactive.
“This is the best mechanism for addressing an issue as opposed to waiting until there is a specific item on the table,” judge Dan Ericksen told the couple. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity, too.”
Asked by Linda Casady to articulate what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of wind power, commissioners highlighted the prospect for increased employment in the area more than the environmental benefits.
Industry projections for the local region – including Wasco, Sherman, and Gilliam counties and parts of Washington state – are for adding 4,000 megawatts of wind power generation in the next five years, which would require between 300 and 400 new technicians.
“That’s a significant amount of new employment,” Ericksen said, explaining later that the figures are based on what industry has asked Columbia Gorge Community College to produce through its new training program.
A second advantage is growth in the tax base, Ericksen said, although he added, “We’re probably not talking about huge numbers at this point.” At least initially, those numbers will be partly undercut by tax incentives the county offers wind developers under the Rural Renewable Energy Zone, a program similar to the city’s Enterprise Zone.
As disadvantages, Ericksen pointed to the challenges posed by the governor’s mandate and the incorporation of growing numbers of intermittent renewables, requiring “shadow power” to fill in the gaps.
And, of course, the location-dependent impacts to local areas – a topic that made up the bulk of Linda Casady’s presentation.
With clear reference to the Sevenmile project, Casady expressed concerns not only about threats to wildlife and their habitat, but also fire danger, and potentially negative health effects on humans exposed to constant, low-level noise and frequent “shadow flicker.”
In a later meeting with The Chronicle, Wooden, CREA’s executive director, said most of those arguments are part of a “laundry list” of negatives people will raise about wind power.
However, one of his board members, Don Coats, said the point about “shadow flicker” – a phenomenon that occurs when a sun low in the sky projects intermittent shadows from a turbine’s blades onto an opposite building – is one of the most legitimate.
“That would drive me nuts,” he said. “I wouldn’t want it.”
Wooden says there are many mitigating circumstances with shadow flicker. For one, he says, it’s exclusively an east-west issue. “It won’t sweep the whole Sevenmile area,” he said. “There will be some bands [where it’s present].”
At the court, commissioners downplayed Casady’s concerns about wildlife, saying habitat loss associated with construction of a wind facility is minimal, and noting that big game are highly adaptable to human development so long as they are allowed to roam.
Commissioners did, however, see the possibility of fire as a concern, especially, Ericksen said, with the extreme danger represented by fires west of The Dalles.
Although the Casadys included in their PowerPoint presentation a slide of a wind turbine catching fire, that is extremely rare, according to Wooden.
“Wind turbines are not a fire hazard; they’re a gearbox,” he said. “There’s more fire danger in the tractors and combines out in the fields.” If anything, he added, wind farms provide firebreaks.
Despite their concerns about impacts specific to the Sevenmile site, the second part of the Casdays’ presentation showed that their opposition to wind power has evolved beyond the “not-in-my-back-yard” phenomenon.
“We started out as NIMBYs,” Gary Casady admitted to the court, employing a term that is used pejoratively to refer to those who oppose development only when it happens near their property.
However, Casady said, after reading thousands of documents and doing extensive research on the internet, the pair has come to the conclusion that many of the positive claims made by the wind power industry need to be questioned.
For example, Casady noted that a wind generator’s actual annual energy production is rarely above 25 percent of its theoretical limit.
That, he said, means four turbines have to be built to produce the energy that could be coming from one.
“I am a sucker for ‘Buy one, get one free’ [at Safeway],” Casady said, “but I’m not a sucker for paying for four and getting one at the regular price.”
According to Wooden, the deal is not as bad as it sounds. “If that was true, they wouldn’t be economical and they wouldn’t be building them,” he said.
He said while a 10-megawatt wind farm – the maximum size for the type of community project his organization promotes – may generate only 3.5 megawatts annually, that proves to be plenty to pay off loans taken out for the development.
“And once you have built it, fuel costs are zero,” Wooden said.
Casady also questioned whether the power grid can accommodate more wind generation and other intermittent resources, and suggested waiting for the grid to catch up before building generators.
According to Wooden, that has it backwards. “That’s never going to happen. People do not put money into transmissional systems,” he said, except to maintain them or get revenue.
Generally, he said, the transmission problem falls on the power generator to solve, meaning it responds to demand and economic viability. All new power generation projects, whether renewable or not, face the same issue, he said.
Casady further questioned the sustainability of the wind power industry in the absence of federal and state subsidies, presenting figures that indicate developers won’t invest unless guaranteed a high annual return – at the expense of tax- and rate-payers.
“The wind industry may be driven more by subsidies than the wind itself,” he concluded. “It might be wiser to spend our resources in a more efficient manner.”
According to Wooden, all major power sources – including coal, natural gas, and oil – enjoy government subsidies. Even the hydro-power system has subsidies holding costs down, he said.
The difference with wind, he said, is that “we talk about our subsidies.”
Finally, Casady posed questions raised by a “case study” of wind energy in Denmark, a recognized pioneer in the industry. Among other things, he noted that carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise in that country, and that no conventional power plan has been shut down there.
Wooden said that fails to take into account the fact that clean wind energy is still off-setting some of the emissions. Wind power presently accounts for 20 percent of Denmark’s energy.
“It’s not going to be the total answer,” Wooden said of the wind industry, “but it certainly shouldn’t be ignored.”
In recommending further study and promoting conservation as an alternative, Casady stressed that he and his wife are “absolutely not anti-green.”
I am part Native American and part Irish,” he said. “You can’t get much greener than that.”
Wooden said that while there is a lot of desire for wind projects in rural areas where people benefit from them, they tend to run into resistance in bedroom communities.
He questioned the proposed siting, especially given all the spaces available for development: “Why would you go and put one where people don’t want you?”
By Ed Cox
of the Chronicle
15 April 2007
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