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Winds of change may blow on Rattlesnake Mountain  

Wind power prospectors once again are poking around Rattlesnake Mountain.

Northwest Wind Partners LLC, a partnership between France-based enXco and Goldendale’s Ross Management Group, is in the early stages of developing a large-scale wind farm north of Prosser. Details are fuzzy and conceptual so far.

Although the company is conducting its own research, it hasn’t yet begun the permit process, which would require detailed study. Company officials didn’t return calls last week to discuss the project.

But depending on an array of factors, including the size of turbines that would be used, it appears the project could consist of about 150 turbines standing as tall as 500 feet from ground level to blade tip, well more than a football field high.

“Any place you could see the ridge you could see the turbines,” said Toby McKay, the Tri-Cities Unit land manager for the Department of Natural Resources, which manages a sliver of the land the project could be built on. “My guess is Prosser, Mabton, Sunnyside, that whole area, I’m sure there would be some view of those.”

Two projects have been proposed in the past but later abandoned for Rattlesnake Mountain. The last one – the Maiden Wind Farm – was scuttled in 2004 when developers became frustrated with studies needed to determine impacts on two Hanford facilities that conduct vibration-sensitive gravitational wave research.

But Northwest Wind Partners spent several days detonating underground charges this spring to test for vibrations.

“As far as I know, everybody wants to be good neighbors,” said Fred Raab, head of Hanford’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. “It’s a much different environment than it was with the last group.”

Unlike other kinds of power projects, wind farms can be scaled up and down dramatically as they are studied and developed. For example, a controversial wind project in Ellensburg was cut almost in half before it was approved last month.

An environmental checklist the Department of Natural Resources filed with Benton County this month indicates the Rattlesnake project could be built over an eight-month period next year, and would have an operating life of 40 years or more on land now used for grazing, growing wheat or nothing at all.

Towers could feature strobe lights during the day and red flashing lights at night to warn pilots.

The document indicates the 636-acre site the agency manages would make up less than 5 percent of the total project. And McKay said it would appear that site could be home to seven 2-megawatt turbines. That could put the entire initial scope of the project at something on the order of 150 turbines at that size.

In comparison, the Maiden Wind Farm would have consisted of 550 turbines.

“It changes from time to time but it’s much less,” Raab said of the new proposal. He said he and Northwest Wind Partners have openly shared information.

It also appears the towers would be somewhat farther away. The Maiden Wind Farm would have come within six miles of the Battelle Gravitational Physics Laboratory, which is inside an underground Nike missile bunker at the bottom of Rattlesnake Mountain.

Paul Boynton, a University of Washington physics professor who conducts experiments there, said he has been in contact with Northwest Wind Partners and it appears the edge of the new project could be 10 miles away.

Boynton said Northwest Wind Partners plans to share preliminary findings from its vibration tests later this month. But even if they show little impact, he may question how closely the explosions simulate vibrations caused by wind towers.

It’s no coincidence the two gravitational research stations were placed so close to each other. Both require an environment that is uniquely still.

Their remote sites at Hanford were ideal for several reasons. The Mid-Columbia, sitting atop a stable layer of basalt, has low levels of seismic activity. There are no trees to catch the wind and cause vibrations. The nearest highway is five miles off and public access to the facilities is restricted.

The dry climate also helps because even falling raindrops can disturb sensitive experiments. While construction and other activity at Hanford can be disruptive, it’s also predictable as workers go home at night.

“You have these large periods of quietness,” said Roy Gephart, who manages the Battelle lab.

He called LIGO, a facility the federal government may soon have invested $1 billion in, “probably the most vibration sensitive facility in all of North America.”

But a nearby “forest” of wind towers with turbines spinning continuously could compromise research.

“The torques around the base of this tower are really big,” Boynton said. “It shakes the hell out of the ground.” But that’s not to say a wind project couldn’t co-exist with the two research stations.

“On the face of it, it’s not impossible,” Boynton said.

“So much will depend on what they are proposing,” Gephart said. “From a vibration standpoint, not all turbines are created equal.”

Precise placement of each tower could play a factor too. And until more is known about the specific impacts, no one is rushing to judgment.

“We really have nothing against wind farms,” Boynton said. “It’s just in this case we have to have fairly certain knowledge that they won’t disrupt these experiments.”

By Chris Mulick
Herald Olympia Bureau

Tri-City Herald

15 October 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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