A storm is brewing in the Grande Ronde Valley, and it’s about to get windier.
After the success of its Elkhorn Valley wind farm project near the tiny community of Telocaset, developer Horizon Wind is looking to add as many as 164 turbines to the foothills of this windy valley. But the 475-foot-tall turbines have divided the sparsely populated county.
The Grande Ronde Valley is unique because it is one of only a few Oregon valleys surrounded by mountains. It’s also one of the state’s windiest areas, according to Valerie Franklin, project manager with Horizon Wind.
The rolling mountains nestled between the Grande Ronde and Baker valleys also mean strong winds during winter _ when turbines lining the Columbia River Gorge aren’t turning.
Despite its rich natural resource, Union County is suffering. Its 10.5 percent unemployment rate is comparable to the state average, but its 15 percent poverty rate is higher. With more farms and timber mills closing each year, some residents feel a few jobs and more tax revenue justify the addition of turbines on the county’s mountains.
Others, like Dennis Wilkinson, president of anti-wind group Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley, say wind farms are ruining the valley by introducing roads, noise and red, blinking lights, while bringing in little money and few jobs. Wilkinson and 200 group members have launched an aggressive campaign complete with flyers, county fair booths and ample anti-wind signage to try and sway residents away from wind.
Vintage tractors cover Wilkinson’s property, tucked into a hillside that could soon see more turbines. A retiree, he spends his time tinkering with heavy machinery, but lately he’s taken up a new hobby: fighting development of wind turbines in Union County.
While some members of his group decry the turbines for scaring away wildlife and scarring the landscape, Wilkinson was driven to start the group for another reason: money.
“These wind companies are using federal and state subsidies to build these things,” Wilkinson said. “Guess what? It’s being paid (for) with your tax dollars.”
Horizon received $11 million in state Business Energy Tax Credits to build Elkhorn Valley, an amount Wilkinson said is significant when compared to the number of jobs created and the amount of tax revenue the county has received in return. According to the Oregon Department of Revenue, Elkhorn Valley accounted for 9.3 percent of Union County’s total property tax revenue between 2008 and 2009. Currently, Elkhorn Valley employs 12 Vestas Americas employees to maintain the turbines and three Horizon employees to operate the wind farm. With changes to the BETC, Franklin said she isn’t sure if Horizon will receive any state subsidies for Horizon Wind’s proposed new wind farm, Antelope Ridge.
Plus, Wilkinson said, his county now has visual pollution of turbines generating electricity that goes to other states.
That’s only half true, Franklin said. Though Horizon has a power purchase agreement with Idaho Power, that utility has customers in Oregon. Union County’s largest town, La Grande, is about a two-hour drive from the Idaho border. The problem, according to Mike Hulse, Elkhorn Valley operations manager with Horizon Wind, is that people don’t understand how power is generated and transmitted back to homes.
“There’s no passing lane on a power line,” Hulse said. “The power goes where the demand is, whether it’s in Idaho or right here in Union. But people only know what they hear, which is that the power we generate here goes somewhere else.”
The final sticking point for Wilkinson is the ratio of power generated to acreage used. Elkhorn Valley covers 10,000 acres, and Antelope Ridge would cover 47,000 more. Wilkinson’s group claims in its promotional materials that the turbines operate at 10 to 20 percent efficiency. Elkhorn Valley could produce 101 megawatts of electricity annually, but only if the wind blew all day, every day. A wind farm’s efficiency is determined by how often winds blow.
Though Franklin said Elkhorn Valley’s energy output is confidential, she said it was close to 30 percent on average, or 30.3 megawatts. If Antelope Ridge were to perform equally well, it would produce 90 megawatts on average.
“I’d rather see another 10-acre natural gas plant than 47,000 acres of wind turbines,” Wilkinson said. “A gas plant being built in Idaho right now only costs $400 million. This new wind farm will cost $600 million and will still need a coal or gas plant to back it up.”
Local farmer and wind advocate Doug Lewis says Wilkinson is wrong about the need to build a new coal or gas plant for every wind farm in the state. The only new gas plant being considered is one to replace Portland General Electric’s Boardman facility when it is shut down in the next 20 years.
“The opposition is anti-tax, anti-government and anti-growth,” Lewis said. “I think it comes down to viewsheds and property values for most of them. There are red, blinking lights on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle, too, but that doesn’t stop people from buying houses there.”
Wilkinson’s group notched a small victory last month after the Union County Board of Commissioners voted to allow residents to weigh in on Antelope Ridge on the November ballot. The results of that vote will be considered public testimony by Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council, according to Oregon Department of Energy spokeswoman Diana Enright. The council, which is the governmental body that decides where energy facilities should be developed in Oregon, will have the final say on whether Antelope Ridge moves forward.
At the August hearing to decide whether the community should vote on the proposed wind farm, 106 people showed up to testify: 53 spoke in favor of the farms and 53 spoke against them.
Fifteen new jobs and income for struggling landowners in Union County aren’t small potatoes for Lewis, a North Powder farmer and member of the pro-wind group For Our Rural Oregon. To him, turbines are no more harmful to property than his potato farm.
“I can grow any crop I want, yet these people are being called out for siting turbines on (their property),” Lewis said. “That’s like someone telling me they don’t like the color of flower crops I’m growing. These developers and landowners should have the opportunity to grow these projects here.”
According to Lewis, some of his neighbors who have allowed turbines to be sited on their land are earning upwards of $1.5 million per year from Horizon. What the anti-wind farm group doesn’t recognize, Lewis said, is the trickledown effect of landowners having more disposable income. More money will be spent locally on new cars, home improvements and other services, Lewis said.
Frustrated by what he said is misinformation distributed by wind farm objectors, Lewis recently joined For Our Rural Oregon. One of the largest pieces of misinformation, Lewis said, is that Elkhorn Valley did not create local jobs. Fourteen of the wind farm’s employees are local residents. Only Hulse, who relocated from California, came from outside the area.
Nine years ago, Shane Kirkland, who grew up near North Powder, had no college degree and was working in a trailer factory. Today, he is a Vestas employee and part of Elkhorn Valley’s senior management. With local timber production down 4 percent from 2009 and 225 people out of work after the trailer factory closed, Kirkland says even the few jobs these wind projects provide are necessary for the county’s economic health. Entry-level Vestas workers make between $16 and $28 per hour, depending on experience. Horizon said it plans to hire 20 full-time employees at Antelope Ridge.
“We’re talking family-income jobs here,” Kirkland said. “Resumes are pulled from local resources. We find a guy with hydraulic, electrical or crane experience and train him to work on turbines. Mill workers have great experience for these jobs. It’s nice to see something take the place of the timber industry as more mills close.”
Many nearby colleges, including community colleges in Walla Walla, Wash., The Dalles and Vancouver, Wash., have begun to offer training programs for wind turbine technicians, Hulse said. Horizon also hires road maintenance workers, custodians to clean the rugs at Elkhorn Valley’s headquarters and electricians to help with transmission line maintenance.
The hardest part of his job, Hulse said, is handling misinformation. Some residents complain that the turbines are loud and cause health problems. But the most vocal opponents have never seen the wind turbines up close, Hulse said.
By offering tours of Elkhorn Valley, and bringing schoolchildren and others to the site, he hopes that one day his work will be seen as positive rather than detrimental to the county.
“I work out here every day and I’m healthy,” Hulse said. “After a while, you don’t hear them anymore. When I have conversations with people, I can usually minimize the misinformation. We ask people to come out and listen to the turbines and get them involved so they see both sides of the equation.”
Though wind farms are bringing in tax revenue and jobs, some residents, as well as federal and state agencies, are concerned about the effect that increased energy development will have on wildlife.
At his home in Union, resident Jed Farmer has become accustomed to seeing elk raise their young in the foothills. Soon, however, those foothills could be covered in turbines, driving elk into the valley floor’s farms, where they will most likely be shot by property owners, Farmer said. Farmer, a member of the Union County Planning Commission, regrets voting yes to Elkhorn Valley. He recently joined Wilkinson’s group Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley.
“I’m not against wind, but I’m against wind in this area,” Farmer said. “The local wildlife’s existence depends on coming down the foothills to breed. Maps I’ve received from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife show the wildlife have already moved out of the areas with turbines at Elkhorn. Three golden eagles have been killed. The area we live in will change dramatically as more wind is added.”
Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife also have concerns about how Antelope Ridge turbines would affect wildlife. Horizon is working with both agencies to see what can be done to mitigate any harmful effects to wildlife.
Of course, any industrial-scale energy development is going to change the land and the way wildlife live in it, Lewis said. He calls those protesting the wind farms for environmental reasons “romantic greens.” At this point, Lewis said, any alternative is preferable to more coal, and any alternative is going to impact something, whether it’s elk, people or a state’s landscape.
“Milk doesn’t come out of a carton and power doesn’t come out of the socket,” Lewis said. “When you don’t allow a project like this to (proceed), that’s that much more coal we’re going to use. Wind isn’t the solution, but it’s part of the solution.”
Information from: Daily Journal of Commerce, http://www.djc-or.com/
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