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W. Washington wind farm canceled due to seabird

RICHLAND, Wash. – Energy Northwest and four southwest Washington utilities have canceled the Radar Ridge wind power project, which had been proposed as the first major wind farm in Western Washington.

Energy Northwest of Richland announced the decision Wednesday at a board meeting in Portland. About $4 million had been spent on the proposed project since 2007, about half of that from Energy Northwest.

New restrictions proposed for the project by U.S. Fish and Wildlife were unreasonable, said Jack Baker, Energy Northwest vice president for energy business services.

At issue was habitat for marbled murrelets, a seabird listed in 1992 as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Energy Northwest also was concerned about the soft market for wind power and the need to spend up to $750,000 to finish the regulatory process with an uncertain outcome.

The project would have built 32 wind turbines on state forest land in Pacific County to help meet requirements of Initiative 937, passed by Washington voters in 2006. The initiative set requirements for utilities to buy wind or other power the initiative defined as renewable.

The Pacific County, Grays Harbor, Clallam County and Mason County public utility districts were working with Energy Northwest to develop the 80 megawatt project. But all parties agreed a week before Wednesday’s meeting that the project should be terminated, Baker said.

Energy Northwest knew good environmental studies would be needed because of the marbled murrelet when it began looking at Radar Ridge, Baker said.

It liked the area because it could help with wind power transmission concerns. Among other transmission benefits, the wind blows there primarily in the winter, while other wind projects in the state have strong winds in the spring and fall.

The land already had been disturbed. Forest has been cut down on the ridge and a large gravel pit and communication towers are operating on top of the ridge, Baker said.

The project partners spent three years conducting scientific studies that showed that the wind farm could be operated in a way that would result in an average of one bird hitting a turbine every two years, he said. That clearly showed the wind project would not jeopardize the species, he said.

The seabirds, which can fly 50 mph, nest in the forest near the ocean to raise their young in the spring and fly out to the ocean in the morning to feed, he said.

However, in mid-August, Energy Northwest learned a draft for a required Fish and Wildlife environmental impact statement would require that the wind project be shut down for six months of the year in the daylight hours. Instead of a 25-year permit, only a five-year permit with extensions would be granted.

The project participants had agreed to spend $1 million to buy 300 acres of old growth forest to set aside for habitat. But the draft environmental study also would require $10 million for the federal government to spend on other habitat projects, Baker said.

The project participants already had adapted the project, including reducing the size of the turbines, and the additional conditions came as a surprise, he said.

Seattle Audobon called the decision to abandon the project a major victory.

Although it supports projects to reduce climate change, the harm to marbled murrelets outweighed the benefits of reduced carbon output, the group said.

“There are significantly better locations to site renewable energy projects than Radar Ridge,” said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of Seattle Audobon, in a news release.

The ridge is within a larger area that has been recognized as the best place to restore marbled murrelet habitat on state managed land, according to Seattle Audobon.

The PUDs and Energy Northwest are disappointed, Baker said. The project had balanced energy, environment and economics as every energy project must, he said. More scientific study had been done than on any wind project in the state, he said.

He predicted that as the energy market improves for wind and “permitting requirements become more sane,” a wind power project will be built on Radar Ridge.

Energy Northwest owns four electricity generating stations: the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant near Richland, Packwood Lake Hydroelectric Project, Nine Canyon Wind Project and White Bluffs Solar Station.
Information from: Tri-City Herald, http://www.tri-cityherald.com