Winds of change: Oregon's charge for clean, green electricity may be neither quite so clean nor quite so green as it first seemed
Electricity is so cool. Always there for us, at the flick of a switch. But where, exactly, does it come from? And what gets hurt on its way? When deciding how to generate power, this much is clear. Oregonians don’t like nukes. Too scary. And they don’t like coal. Too dirty. They’re not even sure about liquefied natural gas. What is that stuff, anyway?
Hydro? Sure, Oregonians used to like hydro. But that was then: before salmon started disappearing by the gazillion. This is now: We’re tearing out dams, not building new ones. But wait, here comes the answer: blowing in the wind.
Make that in the safe, reliable, clean, green, free, fish-hugging wind. We all love windmills, right? But hang on there, Bub. What about loving windmills in your backyard?
Really big ones.
Really big ones that generate electricity for . . . California.
Three things you likely think about windmills. They’re cute, wooden and in Holland. Think again. What we’re talking about here in the United States are wind turbines. The utility-scale ones stand almost 400 feet tall – approaching the height of Portland’s tallest towers – and their blades are almost the length of a football field. Oh yes, and they’re coming like kudzu to our landscape.
Three months ago, Oregon set a new energy standard under which, by 2025, all utilities must generate 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Interim requirements call for 5 percent by 2011 and 15 percent by 2015. That mandate is fueling a stampede to site clusters of wind turbines. Advocates call these power plants “wind farms” (cuddly) rather than “wind factories” (chilling) and urge us to get them up and spinning as fast as we can.
Which brings us to the ridge above Mosier. That’s Mosier just west of The Dalles, right on the edge of the federally protected Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Here, on Seven Mile Hill, a Massachusetts company wants to plant 40 towers, each 389 feet tall. Some neighbors aren’t all that eager to have these stark interlopers sown on their skyline. As wind power edges closer to urban areas, theirs may be the first of many such battles to come.
The Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council currently has five wind projects under review, in Gilliam, Morrow and Sherman counties. Backers of wind power are quick to list its advantages. Tall turbines, they claim, emit relatively little greenhouse gas or air pollution during construction and essentially none during operation. Wind power, they insist, is compatible with both cows and crops. Why, it can even save the family farm, generating new revenue streams for ranchers and rural communities.
Lining up on the other side are those concerned about everything from the start-up costs to the aesthetics. Some critics even worry about carnage in the clouds. Turbine developers concede that the first generation of fast-spinning blades may have sliced through migrating birds by the thousands. But the newest models, their designers insist, rotate so slowly that birds rarely are harmed.
Oregon claims this nation’s first long-distance transmission of electricity – 14 miles from Willamette Falls to downtown Portland in 1889. Since then, our power supply has come in waves. With a “Roll On Columbia” assist from Woody Guthrie, the Great Depression spurred a rush of dam building in the West. Cheap, abundant hydropower, which still accounts for more than 60 percent of the region’s electricity, became the jet engine of the Northwest economy. Then, for 20 years, the United States decided coal was king. Burning it still generates more than half of the nation’s electricity. Spurred by government subsidies, nuclear power boomed in the 1970s and ’80s before the boom in natural gas, now contributing about 20 percent of our electricity supply, burst on to the scene.
Electricity, however, turns out to be like freeways. The more we produce, the more we seem to need. Some of that generated in Oregon is fed into the regional grid, there to be restlessly traded by brokers charged with balancing demand and supply in 14 Western states. The newest generation of wind turbines can each produce about 1.5 megawatts, enough to supply 400 homes. But with start-up costs approaching $2 million per megawatt, wind-power generation is a very big money business. PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility with customers in six states, plans to invest $16 billion in wind power in the next 10 years. It’s no surprise, then, that the industry is calling for help from Uncle Sam. To ignite investment, wind-power advocates want two things to spur investment: a long-term extension of the production tax credit for wind turbines and a national standard requiring utilities to generate more electricity from renewable sources.
Tip of the iceberg
Those turbines already on the eastern Oregon horizon are just the tip of this renewable energy iceberg. Remember how, whenever you visit the Oregon coast, you get the feeling the wind never stops blowing? Turns out, you’re right. Typically a wind farm can be economically viable if the annual wind speed averages at least 12 to 14 mph. Some of Oregon’s most promising wind blows right offshore.
The country’s first offshore project – and it’s a massive one – is proposed for the Eastern seaboard, in Nantucket Sound south of Cape Cod. Greenpeace and others worried about global warming are thrilled. Some local residents, including John Kerry and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., are less than charmed by the idea of 130 turbines, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, bursting into their ocean view. But Kennedy fears much more than visual pollution. Calling the project “privatization of the commons,” he’s railing against its potential impact on everything from fishing to the federal purse.
This is the sort of conflict now roiling through the Columbia Gorge, where members of Oregon’s environmental community, including some arch promoters of renewable energy, find themselves arguing against wind turbines in a sylvan setting. Civic debates don’t get much juicier than this. How long will it be before one comes to Cannon Beach?
By Jonathan Nicholas
19 August 2007
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