Wind power companies target Clark County; Larch Mountain turbine plan signals a shift from rural areas
At least two large wind-energy developers are eyeing Clark County’s Larch Mountain for dozens of 400-foot wind turbines, signaling the industry’s interest in the populated urban areas of Vancouver and Portland.
EnXco Inc. and Horizon Wind Energy have asked the Washington Department of Natural Resources to lease 5,400 acres of state land to study the wind along the ridges of Larch Mountain, a 3,496-foot peak southeast of Battle Ground, Wash.
The turbines – as many as 70 – would be visible from Portland and Vancouver and along Interstate 5 as it stretches into Washington from Oregon.
Until now, developers in the Northwest have built wind farms in the eastern reaches of the Columbia River Gorge, where there is plenty of open land and little community resistance. But the best rural sites have now been taken, pushing developers closer to big cities and potentially volatile political and regulatory confrontations.
EnXco, a California-based company with wind projects in Washington’s Klickitat County, was the first to flag its interest in Larch Mountain, Clark County’s largest peak. Then, this week, Horizon Wind, a Texas-based subsidiary of Portugal’s largest utility and developer of wind farms in eastern Oregon and Washington, notified the state that it, too, was interested in the site.
Because more than one company filed a lease application, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources will hold a public auction to determine the highest bidder.
Developers other than enXco and Horizon Wind may submit bids, said Michelle Metcalf, lease manager for the Department of Natural Resources.
Metcalf expects to hold the auction in one to two months.
The ridgeline that has caught wind developers’ attention stretches from Larch Mountain nine miles northwest to Bells Mountain.
The area, in the Yacolt Burn State Forest, is used by hikers and mountain bikers. Sections of the forest have been harvested for timber.
Battle Ground lies about 13 miles to the northwest of the mountain. The closest community is Hockinson, nine miles to the west.
Hockinson is growing, Metcalf said, “creeping closer and closer to the forest’s boundaries.”
The ridgeline is high enough and the turbine towers tall enough that the turbines “almost certainly” would be seen from the Vancouver-Portland area, Metcalf said.
Any formal plan to build a wind farm is years away. EnXco relied on wind maps from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to pick the site. A lease agreement would allow the company to erect several meteorological towers on the ridge to find out whether the wind is strong and consistent enough to make a project worthwhile.
“The wind might be too little, or it might come from the wrong direction,” said Troy Gagliano, an associate developer with enXco. “We’re literally taking the first step in hundreds of steps.”
If the company were to win the bid and pursue a project, it would submit an application for state and county review. Regulatory agencies would hold public hearings and require environmental and feasibility studies.
“There wold be plenty of time to hear everyone’s concerns,” Gagliano said.
EnXco’s preliminary proposal calls for 39 turbines with a maximum capacity of 40 megawatts, enough to meet the annual electricity requirements of about 10,000 homes. The turbines would measure 414 feet from the ground to the vertical blade tip.
Under Horizon Wind’s rough proposal, the developer would erect as many as 70 turbines with a maximum capacity of 200 megawatts.
Once a lease with the state is signed, the developer has five years to complete the permitting process.
More than 1,500 wind turbines generate electricity in the Columbia River Gorge to the east, primarily in rural wheat fields and rangeland. Most were built with little controversy.
A few proposals closer to neighborhoods and vacation homes, however, have faced sharp resistance, including one in Washington’s scenic Kittitas Valley and another in Oregon between Mosier and The Dalles.
State laws in Oregon and Washington require utilities to steadily increase the amount of renewable energy they deliver to customers. Wind companies eager to meet the increased demand already have secured many of the windy, rural sites close to the transmission lines that can deliver the power to customers.
“As the obvious ones get developed, we’re looking for more diverse sites,” said enXco’s Gagliano.
Rachel Shimshak, director of Renewable Northwest Project, a clean energy trade group, said Larch Mountain likely won’t be the only urban site to draw developers’ attention.
“People should be looking around everywhere,” she said, “because we’re going to need it all.”
Gail Kinsey Hill
The Oregonian Staff
11 June 2008
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