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Dollars — and controversy — blowin' in the wind  

Kittitas County, where strong winds whip across the landscape, is an ideal location for wind turbines.

For some in the county, that’s been a decidedly mixed blessing.

While wind-farm applications bring in permitting fees, and the existing Wild Horse wind project will generate about $1 million a year in property taxes, the County Commission is fighting two other wind-farm proposals in legal battles that may continue for months, if not years, to come.

Such battles may become more widespread as the state faces a steep and rising demand for renewable electricity. With the passage of Initiative 937 in 2006, the state’s large utilities must get 15 percent of their electricity from non-hydroelectric renewable sources by 2020, spurring a hunt for suitable wind sites from wind-power developers.

That may well mean clashes with landowners who want to protect rural views and property values, and in some cases with environmentalists concerned about impacts on birds and wildlife.

But wind farms can be significant sources of revenue for rural counties such as Kittitas. The county’s real property had an assessed value of about $3 billion in 2005, a fraction of King County’s $250 billion.

On the other hand, Kittitas is growing fast – it ranks fifth among the state’s fastest growing counties in both population and employment – and the county is drawing significant numbers of vacation and retirement homes. Many of those homeowners are concerned about wind turbines’ impact on their views and property values.

Meanwhile, other Western states are trying to meet their own renewable-electricity requirements, intensifying the hunt for good power sites. California utilities must get 20 percent of their power from renewables by 2010, stepping up the urgency of the demand. Already, one of Washington’s wind farms, the Big Horn Wind Project in Klickitat County, sells its 200 megawatts to California utilities.

Although Pacific Northwest utilities have put relatively strong conservation programs in place, electricity demand in the region is forecast to grow by about 1 percent to 1.5 percent per year, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The council is still refining its power modeling, but it appears that much of that growth could be met if the Northwest states fully achieve their renewable-energy goals and implement robust conservation, said Jeff King, senior resource analyst for the council. (I-937 includes a waiver that exempts utilities if meeting renewables targets would drive up costs by more than 4 percent, which makes forecasting considerably more complicated.)

While other renewable energy technologies, such as solar, tidal and wave power, are expected to make a bigger contribution in the future, right now such technologies aren’t as cost-effective as wind, and they produce far less power. For example, the biggest solar installation in the state, at Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse wind project, generates about half of one megawatt.

Non-renewable power sources, however, will face constraints, particularly with growing concern over global warming. Public utility consortium Energy Northwest had proposed building a power plant fueled by gas derived from coal or petcoke, a high-carbon, solid product from the refining of crude oil, but a state siting panel recently suspended the group’s application because it didn’t submit a plan for sequestering carbon emissions.

That leaves wind as a key ingredient to meet the state’s future energy needs. Right now, it accounts for 1 percent of Washington’s power, according to the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

But it’s growing fast, according to Nancy Hirsch, policy director with NW Energy Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes renewable energy and conservation. The Northwest is already getting power from about 1,500 megawatts of wind capacity, with each megawatt of wind providing enough power for 300 to 330 homes. Another 1,000 megawatts of wind are under construction, and developers have taken significant permitting steps on another 2,000 megawatts. Meanwhile, developers are eying another 3,000 to 3,500 megawatts of wind potential, Hirsch said.

But only certain parts of Washington are well suited for wind: areas with strong winds and ready access to transmission lines. That’s one reason Kittitas County is considered such a desirable location, said David Steeb, project director of the Desert Claim Wind Power Project, one of the two wind farms contested by the County Commission.

The proposed Desert Claim location has good winds and plenty of land.

“And the other part that really is key is that it is located on the transmission corridor between the eastern side of the state, where most of the hydro is built, and the western side, where most of the load is,” he said.

Building new transmission lines can be extremely costly, ranging from $500,000 to $1 million per mile, Steeb said.

The Kittitas County Commission is now going to court to fight one wind-farm proposal, the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project. After the County Commission rejected the project, a state energy-siting panel recommended that Gov. Chris Gregoire override the county. The governor approved the project on Sept. 18, citing the state’s need for new renewable resources.

The County Commission has appealed her decision to the state Supreme Court, and a preliminary hearing is set for February.

Meanwhile, Desert Claim also applied to the state siting panel for approval.

By Dierdre Gregg
Staff Writer

Puget Sound Business Journal

28 December 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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