March 13, 2010

Developers power down interest in Blues wind

East Oregonian, 13 March 2010

As Umatilla County continues to wrestle over new rules for new wind farms, a pair of wind developers may have pulled the plug on their plans here.

Two major companies - Renewable Energy Systems, Inc., and Gaelectric Developments – had secured land leases east of Highway 11, near the Blue Mountains. Wind developers often use those agreements to measure wind activity on site, or conduct other research before a decision to build is made.

But late last month, county records show RES terminated three such agreements with local property owners. And Gaelectric has verbally expressed a similar sentiment, though nothing has been put in writing, said Umatilla County Planning Director Tamra Mabbott.

A call to Gaelectric went unanswered this week.

That leaves Horizon Wind Energy as the last major player with leases in the area. Company project manager Elon Hasson said wind measurement continues there, and more research is on the way.

“We’re still excited to work with Umatilla County,” Hasson said.

Still, no formal proposal has been made, and no development is likely in the near future.

The idea of wind turbines in the foothills of the Blue Mountains has been a point of controversy for much of the past year. A Milton-Freewater group known as the Blue Mountain Alliance last year submitted a proposal to block wind farms there, citing scenic and aesthetic value of the land. That proposal was later withdrawn, and the group is still considering whether to re-submit it with a broader scope, said Blue Mountain Alliance member Ryan Stoner.

The county is still mulling over what standards to apply to new projects, though it already has a “robust” process, Mabbott said. A key question is how far wind turbines should be required to locate from other homes or properties. The county has proposed 3,520 feet; the Blue Mountain Alliance suggested two miles. The group also submitted a set of other conditions they’d like to see applied to wind projects.

The Umatilla County Planning Commission holds the final say. Regardless of the outcome, having those discussions doesn’t hurt, Mabbott said.

“It’s very helpful,” Mabbott said. “It’s not an easy decision.”

Stoner noted the Blue Mountain Alliance only objects to possible development in the Blue Mountains – an area he called critical for wildlife and water. Stoner sees no problem with existing Umatilla County wind projects on the west side of Highway 11, he said. He added the county has been “great” to work with throughout the process.

In the meantime, Horizon continues to monitor the area’s wind. With almost two years of wind observation completed in the region, Hasson said Horizon also plans to complete a year-long wildlife study focusing on birds - a company policy, regardless of local rules, he said.

“This won’t be the last study,” Hasson said. “This will be the first.”

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