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Cowlitz PUD considering expansion at White Creek wind farm

ROOSEVELT, Wash. – Atop a 265-foot wind turbine, workers can see 50 miles across the rolling plains overlooking the Columbia River Gorge. Four mountains – Hood, Jefferson, Adams and St. Helens – cut majestic swaths in the skyline. And the tiny cattle grazing below look out of place amid the 89 titanic turbines that make up Cowlitz PUD’s $360 million White Creek wind farm.

“It definitely gives you an unobstructed, panoramic view of the area,” said White Creek general manager and Castle Rock native Bjorn Hedges.

The 205-megawatt project, which can power 38,000 homes, went online in November following more than a year of construction. About 30 employees now work there, and they make the 280-step climb a few times a week up each tower and inside the turbine to the top hatch, called the nacelle, to monitor the conversion of wind energy into electricity, Hedges said.

It’s renewable energy blowing through the 9,500-acre site in rural Klickitat County, 21 miles east of Goldendale, and it’s the wave of the future. The PUD will soon be required by a 2006 state voter-approved law to use more renewable power, and expansion to more wind power could be down the road.

In July, PUD commissioners expect to decide whether to move forward with 40 additional wind turbines or go back to the drawing board to find more power.

“We will need additional renewables,” said Cowlitz PUD spokesman Dave Andrew.

From the ground, the three 150-foot-long blades on each turbine appear to rotate slowly, as if gently pushing a giant battleship through water.

But up high in the nacelle, where the turbine’s wind energy is converted into electricity, the blades seem to move more quickly, like propellers of a single-engine plane. They complete 16 revolutions per minute, but the tip of the blade can reach speeds as high as 156 mph, according to Hedges.

It’s that kind of power that Cowlitz PUD must harness to meet its renewable energy standards mandated by voter-approved Initiative 937. By 2012, 3 percent of the PUD’s power load must come from renewable resources, which include wind, solar and geo-thermal power. The threshold jumps to 9 percent in 2016 and 15 percent by 2020.

About 6 percent of the PUD’s power now comes from renewables, thanks to its purchase of 46 percent of White Creek’s output. Three other public utilities – Klickitat PUD, Lakeview Light & Power and Tanner Electric Co-op – buy the rest of the wind farm’s output.

The project is owned by a private investment group that to advantage of a federal tax credit designed to help promote wind energy. The four utilities have the option to buy the project after 10 years.

White Creek wind energy costs about $50 per megawatt-hour. That’s higher than the $32 rate the Bonneville Power Administration charges the PUD for hydropower, but the federal energy expects it will no longer be able to meet its power load demand in 2011, which would likely drive power costs up.

The PUD’s share of the energy is being sold as surplus to pay for electrical system upgrades until the renewable energy standards take effect, Andrew said.

But the PUD still needs to find more renewable energy to meet the increases in state standards for 2016 and 2020. The utility’s three commissioners are considering the Harvest Wind project, a 40-turbine expansion in the same area that could generate an additional 100 megawatts of power.

So far, the Eugene Water and Electrical in Oregon and the Lakewood-based Lakeview Light and Power have expressed interest in partnering with Cowlitz PUD, Andrew said.

The Harvest Wind price tag, however, is unknown. Construction costs rose 38 percent from when the PUD began planning White Creek in 2003, and they show no sign of going down. PUD commissioners expect to see an estimate this summer, and a decision will come later, Andrew said.

“We’ve got to make sure the cost is right,” he said.

By Erik Olson

The Daily News Online

20 May 2008