It’s hard not to see a postcard image from most places in Union County, in northeastern Oregon. The rugged Blue Mountains vault from a farmed valley floor, and cities and towns – Cove, La Grande, Union – throw a twinkle at twilight. Best of all, the fabled Grande Ronde River runs through it.
Now a bull-nose energy project moves forward to yoke power from something well-known in Union County but unseen: prevailing winds, sharpest on mountain flanks and the ridges south of Union. And the Antelope Ridge wind farm is anything but discreet: 164 spinning turbines each up to 475 feet tall would be strung across more than 40,000 mountainous acres at a cost of about $600 million.
Not surprisingly, this bucolic piece of Oregon is torn up about it.
While state officials will decide whether Texas-based Horizon Wind Energy can go ahead with Antelope Ridge, the locals – and, at some point, all Oregonians – must live with it.
Make no mistake: Union County commissioners smartly see rich opportunity down the road and have tentatively forged a $40 million, 15-year, share-the-wealth agreement with Horizon to show for it.
But citizens increasingly voice concerns about ruined views by day and blinking red tower lights by night. Others yet worry about potentially harmful health effects of turbines that have triggered complaints elsewhere about disrupted sleep and mood disorders in folks living nearby.
In last week’s election, a slim majority of Union County voters voted no when asked whether Antelope Ridge seemed like a good idea. However nonbinding the vote, we believe this vote raises legitimate concerns that need to be fully heard before Antelope proceeds – if it does at all. Only then may citizen worries about views and health effects be satisfied.
In a rural county that needs jobs and thirsts for cash, it will be difficult to withstand a renewable energy outfit that requires little infrastructure support and will furnish jobs as well as cash to surrounding public schools. Even the Union County Museum and Buffalo Peak Golf Course would benefit if Antelope Ridge is greenlighted.
But the Antelope Ridge debate moves to a new level tomorrow night at La Grande Middle School, where county commissioners will conduct a public hearing on the deal they’ve tentatively struck with Horizon. Significantly, this hearing has nothing to do with whether Antelope is properly scaled or arrayed – instead, it’s to make clear the financial benefits to Union County if Antelope moves forward.
The more difficult and consequential part comes up later this year, when the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council considers approving the Antelope wind farm’s construction. Significantly, the siting council was birthed decades ago to consider big baseload power plants such as nuclear, coal and gas. Its foray into renewables has brought to us the helter-skelter wind farm array now lining horizons across much of northeastern Oregon – and it has done so by earnestly following its own narrow, outdated rules.
For the sake of those who inhabit the picture postcard Grande Ronde Valley and all Oregonians who appreciate it, the siting council must move its sights higher.
It must ask whether Antelope Ridge would add more to Oregon, for better and worse, than just wind-driven energy. And it must, just as Union County’s commissioners must, take into account the concerns of citizens willing to forgo a county payday to keep their piece of Oregon as they’ve always wanted it to be.
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