Plans for a controversial wind farm on the hills above Mosier may be faltering.
Almost a year has passed since developer UPC Wind first asked state regulators to review the 40-turbine project, which lies within the windy stretches of the Columbia River Gorge. Revisions to the proposal, promised more than six months ago, have yet to materialize.
The delays underscore the difficulties UPC Wind faces as it tries to re-arrange the turbines so that they’re less visible from a federally protected scenic area, but still in breezy enough spots to produce a money-making venture.
The Massachusetts-based company also is struggling to appease an outpouring of anger from residents near the proposed site, on Sevenmile Hill. So far, opposition remains organized and strong.
“When virtually everyone for miles around says this is a terrible location for a wind farm, you’d think they’d take the hint,” said Jim Yuhas, a nearby homeowner.
UPC Wind said it is continuing to study the site and to collect additional wind-speed data at locations farther from the scenic area’s boundaries.
“We are still very much interested in the area and the project,” said company spokesman John Lamontagne.
Most of the opposition zeroes in on the northern perimeter of the project where turbines abut the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Some of the 400-foot-tall turbines would be visible from popular lookouts and along highways and roads that cut through the Gorge in Oregon and Washington.
This is the first wind project in Oregon to ignite such furious controversy. The gorge already bristles with hundreds of electricity-producing turbines, but they lie among wide open wheat fields and scrubland far from people or protected grounds.
Oregon is considered a leader in the push for renewable energy, but the scuffle on Sevenmile Hill foretells a new level of appraisal in which one environmental ideal must be weighed against another.
UPC Wind’s project, called Cascade Wind, would be of modest size. With a 60-megawatt capacity, it would produce enough electricity to power the equivalent of 18,000 homes continuously.
Congress created the National Scenic Area in 1986 to “protect and enhance the scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources of the Columbia River Gorge.” A 13-member commission carries out the act’s rules and regulations, but it has no jurisdiction over projects outside the designated boundary, no matter how close they might lie.
In Cascade Wind’s case, the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council holds most of the regulatory muscle. As part of its review, it will decide whether the project would cause a “significant adverse impact to scenic and aesthetic values.”
Last June, the Oregon Department of Energy, which provides staff support for the siting council, deemed UPC Wind’s application incomplete. It demanded more information on a wide range of issues, including wildlife impacts and noise levels.
Initially, UPC Wind said it would respond by Aug. 31, 2007. It missed the self-imposed deadline, submitted a few sketchy revisions in October and has been silent ever since.
Regulators met with developers last month in an effort to nudge the process forward.
“The best they could tell us was that they’re looking at changing the project to respond to the public comments,” said Adam Bless, who is heading up the energy department’s review.
UPC Wind declined to provide details. It confirmed that it might move turbines from some spots and add them elsewhere, but it said it hasn’t yet settled on a specific plan. Neither would it say whether a revised project would contain more or fewer turbines than the original proposal.
Under the most likely scenario, UPC Wind would eliminate some of the 22 turbines planned for the northern section of the project and add turbines to the southern end six miles away.
Turbine placement is crucial to a project’s success. Moving the massive towers even a few yards can dramatically cut back on the amount of wind that hits the blades and powers the generator. Because developers are paid for each kilowatt hour of energy produced, less generation means less cash.
UPC said it is collecting more wind-speed data to determine if a reconfiguration is feasible.
Any changes also would require further environmental impact studies, which could take months.
“The revisions will be extensive and will replace the original application almost entirely,” Bless said. That means the state’s review could stretch well into next year.
Regulators have the authority to set deadlines for project reviews, but haven’t yet done so in UPC Wind’s case. “It’s up to us to figure out if the applicant is wasting everyone’s time or if they’re making a good-faith effort to address the problems,” Bless said.
When UPC Wind announced the project last May, it said it was on track to complete the project by the end of this year. Given the delays, that’s an impossible timetable to meet.
Sevenmile Hill residents say they’re becoming increasingly anxious.
“It’s this thing hanging over our heads that has a potentially huge impact on our lives,” said Scott Hege, a general contractor, whose 11 acres of hillside command sweeping views of Mount Hood and Mount Adams. “All of us want it resolved.”
Whatever the outcome, conflicts between wind farms, scenic corridors and communities can only grow as Oregon and Washington continue their push for renewable energy. Both states have imposed laws requiring utilities to ratchet-up clean-power purchases. Wind is the most competitive option.
In a Washington state version of the Mosier dispute, SDS Lumber of Bingen, Wash., is considering a wind farm on Saddleback Mountain in eastern Skamania County. Some of the turbines would rise just outside the scenic area’s boundary and would be visible from the Cook-Underwood area of Washington and the Hood River Valley in Oregon.
“One way or another, we’ll see the visual impact that a tower might have,” said the Oregon energy department’s Bless.
By Gail Kinsey Hill
31 March 2008
Families for Sevenmile Hill: www.families47mile.org
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