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Ambitious wind farm idea pushes on in gorge

An energy developer from New York is moving forward with a project to build a gargantuan wind farm along the Columbia River in Gilliam and Morrow counties.

If built out as proposed, Shepherd’s Flat wind farm would be the largest in the Northwest and more than double the size of any individual wind project under development in Oregon. It would include as many as 303 wind turbines, some stretching 500 feet tall. At peak capacity, the project could generate up to 909 megawatts of electricity – enough to power some 225,000 homes.

The project site is on privately held land between Oregon 19 and Oregon 74, about five miles southeast of Arlington. It would include 57 miles of new access roads, two substations, six meteorological towers, 17 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and another 103 miles of collector transmission lines. The application lists about 25 landowners within the site or within 500 feet of its boundaries.

“It’s the largest we’ve had for a wind project,” said John White, a senior analyst at the Oregon Department of Energy who works with the Energy Facility Siting Council.

Wind development is going strong in several rural counties along the Columbia River Gorge, boosted by new mandates in Oregon, Washington and California that require utilities to serve a large percentage of their demand with renewable energy. In Oregon, utilities need to provide retail customers with 25 percent renewable power by 2025 and hit a series of interim targets.

The wind farms are being aggressively developed by both utilities and independent energy developers that resell the power or flip the entire project once it’s up and running. Shepherd’s Flat’s developer, privately held Caithness Energy, based in New York, owns a variety of wind, geothermal, solar and other renewable energy projects in California, Texas and Wyoming. In August, the company sold an interest in 18 of its renewable projects to Boston-based ArcLight Capital Partners.

Caithness did not return repeated calls, but the news release on that sale said Caithness would continue to own and operate the remainder of its generation portfolio, as well as its development portfolio of 2,250 megawatts. It’s unclear whether that includes Shepherd’s Flat.

The project would interconnect to Bonneville Power Administration’s high-voltage transmission system at the Slatt substation in Gilliam County, which would require an upgrade to handle the power.

The developers filed a preliminary application for Shepherd’s Flat early this year. With a completed site-certification application recently filed, the Department of Energy, other state agencies and local governments will review the facility’s regulatory compliance and take public comments until Jan 10. The DOE will hold a public hearing on the facility after issuing a draft proposed order this spring.

Few wind projects in Oregon have faced significant public opposition, White said, save for a proposed wind farm between Mosier and The Dalles that is just outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

But as the scale of wind development in eastern Oregon and Washington has increased, wildlife advocates are becoming increasingly wary of the projects’ impacts on eagles, hawks, migratory birds and other animals, such as Washington ground squirrels.

Wind turbines blanket much of the Columbia plateau at the east end of the gorge – prime raptor territory – and the wind development is taking place at such a torrid pace that analysts from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife say they haven’t had time to analyze cumulative effects.

By Ted Sickinger

The Oregonian

4 December 2007