News that multiple wind farms are planned on the north flank of Steens Mountain should be a wake-up call to Oregonians. Flocks of wind turbines on such an iconic landmark are more than a cloud on the horizon. They’re an approaching storm.
We couldn’t believe more strongly in the need to expand renewable power, including wind energy. We are proud of Oregon’s leadership in green technology. We also understand that new energy facilities will leave an unavoidable footprint wherever they’re situated.
But if industrial-scale energy plants – whether wind, wave, solar or geothermal – start going up in what are demonstrably the wrong places, our clean energy future and Oregon’s green industry are doomed.
If we allow important places and sensitive habitats to be scarred and disrupted by new roads, turbines and transmission lines, then the renewables industry will be tainted, public support for renewable power will dwindle and potential investors will disappear.
Steens Mountain makes the point. This stunning landscape, treasured by generations, is a haven for amazing wildlife including sage-grouse, golden eagles and bighorn sheep. Local landowners and taxpayers have invested tremendous effort and millions of dollars to protect the pristine natural character of the Steens.
Today, Steens Mountain is at risk because Oregon has no plan or process to point renewable energy developments to better places with fewer impacts.
Instead, developers essentially have free rein to pursue projects wherever they can find a willing landowner. They can break apart big projects into pieces small enough to avoid state-level review. No significant ecological assessment, consideration of alternatives or study of environmental or cumulative effects is required.
The only hurdle remains county approval. It is understandable when cash-strapped Oregon counties, desperate for jobs, embrace these proposals. But they’re the ones hurt the most when an ill-considered project runs into problems or costly delays and never gets built.
There has to be a better way. A more enlightened approach to locating new energy facilities can offer greater certainty to developers, power purchasers and local communities. It can ensure strong protection for Oregon’s extraordinary natural heritage and create jobs in rural communities geared to the careful stewardship of natural resources.
Oregonians need and deserve a new energy road map that encourages responsible development in the most suitable places. It must begin with a comprehensive assessment of our renewable resource opportunities and their intersection with ecological values. It must address policies and incentives for siting new facilities.
The 2011 Legislature and our next governor should be prepared next January to bring Oregon’s renewable energy planning into the 21st century. They’ll find willing partners in the energy industry and the conservation community eager to work side by side with them to keep Oregon’s energy future on a truly green path.
Advancing renewable energy and protecting our environment are not conflicting goals. The fact is, in today’s world, we simply cannot achieve one without the other.
Russell Hoeflich is Oregon director of The Nature Conservancy and co-chairman of the Natural Resources Committee of the Oregon Global Warming Commission. Judi Johansen is president of Marylhurst University, former CEO of PacifiCorp and former administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.