UNDERWOOD – The proposed Saddleback Mountain wind project lies outside the boundary of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – barely.
That’s a sensitive point for SDS Lumber Co. President Jason Spadaro, because another proposed gorge wind project, which would skirt the scenic area boundary across the Columbia River between Mosier and The Dalles, Ore., has provoked strong opposition in gorge communities.
The turbines of the Cascade Wind Project, just south of the scenic area boundary, would be visible from several viewpoints within the scenic area, including Interstate 84, Washington state Highway 14 and Oregon’s Rowena Plateau and McCall Point Trail.
Proposed by Massachusetts-based UPC Wind Partners, that project is on hold pending the company’s response to numerous questions posed by the Oregon Department of Energy.
The Saddleback project would be far less visually jarring, Spadaro says.
“We will be 400 feet from the boundary at one point, but our turbines would be placed along a north-south corridor going away from the river toward the north,” Spadaro said.
To prove his point, he shows off three-dimensional computer models that simulate viewpoints in the gorge from which the turbines, each measuring about 360 feet from the ground to the highest point of its blade, would be visible.
“Of the 44 turbines, the south seven turbines would be visible from the Hood River Valley,” he said. “If you’re eastbound on I-84, between mileposts 55 and 56 between Hood River and Mosier, looking off toward the horizon, you would see the wind turbines at the north end. From the heart of Underwood, no one can see any of it. From White Salmon you could see the northernmost turbine. From downtown Hood River you could see the tips of the blades.”
Not everyone is sold on the wind farm.
“Most of the Underwood community is completely against the project,” said Ronda Crumpacker, who owns property about a mile away. “It’s not that any of us are against the power. We’re all for renewable energy. But to site a power plant where you are going to see it from Underwood, Hood River and White Salmon. …”
“Any of us who want to rant and rave about coal-fired plants and dams need to support alternative energy projects,” said Sally Newell, a former Columbia River Gorge commissioner and longtime Underwood resident. “Having said that, I can see where just the construction phase will be so hugely disruptive to the people of Underwood that we will all hate SDS once this is over.”
The logging road to the ridge where the turbines would be planted is narrow and full of hairpin curves. It would have to be widened and improved to accommodate the tractor-trailer rigs carrying the giant towers and turbine blades up the mountainside.
The road climbs to a narrow saddle, from which the Columbia River and Hood River, Ore., are visible on one side and the valley of the Little White Salmon River lies far below on the other. Several of the turbines would be visible from the historic timber towns of Willard and Mill A in that valley, about two miles away.
SDS is offering something extra to those towns to make up for marring their view: fire protection. “We would annex ourselves into a newly created fire district” Spadaro said. “The taxes would all come from us.”
Spadaro first proposed harnessing wind power from the company’s commercial forest lands in 2002. “It was my idea to prospect our land,” he said.
SDS owns 6,000 acres in the Underwood Mountain area, which it manages intensively for timber production. Broughton Lumber Co. owns the adjacent 10,000 acres. The wind project would rise on 200 acres straddling both ownerships. In all, the turbines would stretch for about 2 miles along high ridges in the backcountry.
“Where there are no trees, where the ground is flat, that is where the wind power companies go,” Spadaro said.
His idea gained new momentum in 2006, after Washington voters approved an initiative that requires Washington utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
The generator powered by the turbines would hook to the Bonneville Power Administration’s 230,000-volt regional transmission line, one of four lines that crosses Underwood Mountain.
Puget Sound Energy has agreed to develop the $70 million project as a partner with SDS and produce up to 70 megawatts of interconnectivity with the BPA grid. That translates to 20 megawatts of constant energy, enough to power 14,500 homes – or all the homes in Skamania County, with power to spare.
The project would generate about $500,000 annually in taxes to Skamania County, as much as Broughton Lumber Co.’s proposed Broughton Landing resort down the mountain.
Saddleback would create 100 jobs during construction and six to eight jobs in operation. It would benefit the Skamania Public Utility District by providing some reliability, Spadaro said, because the district would have a generating source within its own boundaries. If the PUD bought power from Puget Sound Energy, that power could count toward its compliance with the renewable energy standard.
Testing the wind
Over the past five years, SDS has installed two meteorological towers to measure wind velocity. To make the project economically feasible, the system has to be capable of generating energy 30 percent of the hours in a year. Saddleback passed that test, Spadaro said.
The company has commissioned inventories of bird activity to determine whether too many would be killed. A similar study of bats is under way.
So far, Spadaro said, things look good.
Hauling would take place over a four- to six-month period. Each tower would be secured by a foundation 20 feet deep. “Once the foundations are put in and the crane is here, they will be able to erect a tower every day,” Spadaro said.
The land where the turbines would rise has been logged and replanted over the years. After construction is completed, the company would need to keep trees near the turbines trimmed so they don’t interfere with the rotation of the blades.
At a community meeting in Underwood in October, residents asked Spadaro how the project would affect property values, and some raised concerns about its visibility and potential health effects from the operation of the turbines.
Crumpacker, who has lived in the area for 13 years, had hoped to develop 20-acre home sites on her agriculturally zoned land within the national scenic area. Now those plans are on hold. At the Underwood hearing, she said she was concerned about the potential for noise, ice throw and “flicker effect” from the operation of the turbines.
Those concerns are unfounded, Spadaro said. “The nearest property is 2,600 feet away. After 1,000 feet, there is no noise. Right under the turbines you hear a slight swoosh. It’s 35 decibels, the equivalent of background noise. There’s nobody close enough to be affected by ice throw.”
As for visual effects, “The million-dollar views are to the south and west,” he said. “These turbines are to the north.”
SDS hopes to apply for the necessary permits to construct the Saddleback Mountain project by year’s end. The company needs permission from the BPA to hook up to its grid, a county conditional use permit, and a permit to use county roads.
Wind turbines belong in lightly populated areas, Crumpacker says. “There are hundreds of people here. We don’t want this in our backyard. They’re highly visible, in a place people come to recreate, to see wildflowers.”
But Spadaro says he likes the sight of the white turbines arrayed along ridgelines. And he’s excited about the prospect that SDS could pioneer the development of clean energy in the mid-gorge region.
“In the bigger picture of renewable energy, it’s replacing alternatives that have a lot more effect on the climate,” he said. “Myself, I don’t think they are ugly. I’ll be proud to bring my kids up here and show them that we are doing something about global climate change.”
By Kathie Durbin
Columbian Staff Writer
9 December 2007
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