UNION – For decades, not much has changed in the tiny northeastern Oregon town of Union. Nestled in the Grande Ronde Valley, it lies close to the spectacular Eagle Cap Wilderness.
But a Texas company’s proposal to build a wind energy project on the slopes that overlook two sides of town is drawing Union’s 1,900 residents squarely into a clash being played out elsewhere in the West.
Many fear the proposal will mean spoiled views and damage to wildlife habit.
Plans for the $600 million Antelope Ridge Wind Power Project call for 182 turbines to be built across 47,000 acres of privately owned land. With blades fully upright, towers would be as tall as 520 feet.
The City Council declared its opposition in December. A hastily formed group papered the town with “Say NO” posters.
With that, the town joined Oregon’s first serious rumblings against wind power, including resistance to projects in the Columbia River Gorge and at Steens Mountain.
Oregonians value both green power and residents’ desire to preserve vistas and wildlife habitat, notes Sue Oliver, a state Department of Energy spokeswoman in Hermiston.
“We are about to have a clash of two things very important to the state of Oregon,” she said.
For years, Oregon has embraced wind energy as a source of renewable energy and jobs. The state has spent tens of millions of dollars as part of its Business Energy Tax Credit program to attract wind developers.
As a result, Oregon now has nearly 1,200 wind turbines on more than a dozen wind farms, producing 1,758 megawatts. That ranks it sixth in the nation in wind-energy production, behind Texas, Iowa, California, Washington and Minnesota, said Christine Real de Azua of the American Wind Energy Association in Washington, D.C.
An additional 23 projects, including Antelope Ridge, are far enough along in planning stages to be tracked by the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based coalition of companies and groups that promotes renewable energy.
Still, organized resistance has been emerging. After Massachusetts-based First Wind sought state permission in 2007 for a 40-turbine project between The Dalles and Mosier, residents protested that the 260-foot turbines would mar Columbia River Gorge views and endanger migrating birds. First Wind withdrew the plan in January 2009.
In summer 2008, a group called the Blue Mountain Alliance gathered 600 signatures as part of an effort to ban wind turbines on 200,000 acres of northeast Oregon’s Blue Mountains. A few months later, the Milton-Freewater City Council proclaimed its desire to keep turbines out of the town’s viewshed along the west face of the Blues.
Near Boardman, residents are turning to the state’s noise regulations to try to control turbines at the year-old Willow Creek Wind Energy Project. Homeowners say the low-frequency roar robs them of sleep.
And two groups are trying to block three wind farms planned for the north flank of Steens Mountain in the state’s southeast corner.
Many Union residents worry that the Antelope Ridge project will destroy their serene way of life.
Residents chose to live in Union “because of our surroundings, the richness of the character of the valley,” City Administrator Sandra Patterson said.
Businessman Dennis Wilkinson organized a local opposition group. He said mountainsides bristling with turbines would turn away visitors, hurting a $106 million tourism industry that employs a combined 1,530 workers in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties.
Residents also worry that turbine noise could damage their health and that turbines will harm habitat for elk, deer, raptors and sage grouse. And they see the project as an intrusion by outsiders.
The developer is Horizon Wind Energy of Houston, a subsidiary of EDP Renovaveis of Portugal.
Arlo Corwin, Horizon’s director of development, isn’t fazed.
He says the project would bring 165 jobs to Union County during nine to 12 months of construction, which could start as early as next year. After that, the wind farm would employ 20 maintenance workers and fuel 32 related jobs, Corwin said, and dramatically boost the county’s tax base. At 300 megawatts, it would produce enough power for about 90,000 homes.
“This is an important project to the county and local economic development,” he said. “It’s also an important project for wind energy in Oregon.”
The project doesn’t need city or county approval. As with all proposed wind farms of 105 megawatts or more, Antelope is being evaluated by the state-level Energy Facility Siting Council.
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