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Wind farm could grow from 10 to 80 turbines

EAST WENATCHEE – A Douglas County PUD project to place 10 wind turbines near the farming town of Withrow could grow to 80 turbines or more following a recent study by an independent consultant.

“We’re studying with the larger project in mind,” PUD General Manager Bill Dobbins said Tuesday of the Withrow Wind Project.

Still in the analytical stage, the project could cover about 23 square miles (14,600 acres) of desert scrub and farmland northeast of Withrow with three-bladed wind machines that stretch as high as 300 feet into the air.

Similar turbines are already at work in the Vantage and Ellensburg areas.

A larger project would cost an estimated $440 million that the PUD could pay for by issuing bonds and seeking private investment, Dobbins said.

The project could make the PUD the region’s only public utility to build its own wind farm from the ground up.

Commissioners instructed PUD staff to study a larger project after learning from private consultants Feb. 21 that the Withrow-area site, northeast of Waterville, has the wind patterns and topography to support a 160-megawatt wind farm.

A project that size – enough to power about 80,000 Northwest homes – could have as many as 80 turbines with a 2-megawatt capacity or 106 turbines with a 1.5-megawatt capacity. Both are the same physical size.

Dobbins said he hopes to present commissioners with a recommended project size and timeline by late this year.

Wind machines could be spinning in Withrow in 2011 or 2012, according to Dobbins’ early estimate.

The capacity of area transmission lines will determine the size of the final project, he said.

Spokane-based utility Avista Corp. has a transmission line in the site’s vicinity. Dobbins said Avista is studying whether the line could handle the wind farm’s extra electricity.

The PUD has already spent about $3.5 million on studies, consultants’ fees, land buys and leases for the project.

Studies that remain include an analysis of the project’s impact on the local sage grouse population.

Dobbins said PUD officials will likely travel to Withrow in April to discuss the latest plans with residents there.

Residents expressed overwhelming support for the wind farm during two town meetings, one last year and another in 2006.

“Some of them are impatient that we’re not going fast enough,” Dobbins said.

Property owners could earn $3,000 to $5,000 annually for each tower placed on their property, according to some industry estimates.

Once construction ends, the turbines and access roads will amount to 3 percent to 5 percent of the total land. Farmers could still farm around them, PUD spokeswoman Meaghan Vibbert said in an e-mail.

The utility has already leased land from 20 area property owners. Two more leases on the remaining 1,000 acres needed are in the works, Vibbert said.

At 160 megawatts, the wind farm would produce about double the PUD’s average current customer load of 80 megawatts. Power is now supplied by the PUD’s Wells Dam on the Columbia River.

Analysts say state environmental regulations could have the region’s private and public utilities clamoring for wind-generated electricity.

Washington voters approved Initiative 937 in late 2006. The initiative requires all utilities with more than 25,000 customers to supply at least 15 percent of their demand via alternative, clean sources such as wind or solar by 2020. Increased efficiencies at hydro dams also could count toward the quota.

At about 17,800 customers, the Douglas County PUD wouldn’t immediately be subject to the initiative, but could be by 2025 as the utility’s customer base grows, Dobbins said.

Both the Chelan and Grant PUDs would be immediately affected.

Dobbins said commissioners hope the wind project will reduce the utility’s need to buy qualifying power from other sources.

“It’s kind of a take-care-of-yourself mentality,” he said.

Renewable-energy quotas established by the initiative would be phased in starting in 2012.

By Christine Pratt
World Staff Writer

The Wenatchee World

30 January 2008