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Planning commission turns down power line

The Umatilla County Planning Commission unanimously rejected a wind-power company’s plan Thursday for a power line connecting a proposed wind farm to the regional grid.

That put another wrench in plans for a U.S. subsidiary of Windkraft Nord, a German company that wants to build a 99-megawatt, 33-turbine wind farm between Milton-Freewater and Athena.

Last month the planning commission approved the permit for the facility, officially called the Chopin Wind Project.

But the conservation group Blue Mountain Alliance appealed that decision Nov. 4. The wind-farm permit is pending a Nov 28. review by the county board of commissioners.

Thursday night, in a separate request, Windkraft Nord asked the planning commission to approve a new power line to run along rights of way south and east from the wind farm site to a 230-kilovolt PacifiCorp line in the Blue Mountains. The wind-farm site is between Pine Creek and Lower Dry Creek, north of Staggs and Ferguson Roads.

During the meeting project manager Eric Johnston said the company could downgrade its line from 230 kilovolts to 69 kilovolts and add a substation at the connection point to the larger PacifiCorp line.

A 230-kilovolt line could have wood or steel poles, 120-180 feet tall. A 69-kilovolt line would have only 55- to 70-foot tall wooden poles, according to materials in Windkraft Nord’s proposal.

This sudden change, and a lack of engineering plans, worried commissioners.

“I want to see the construction as it’s going to be built,” said commission Chairman Gary Rhinhart. “So that I know exactly what I am approving.”

Johnston offered to give the commission final approval of the engineering plans as a condition of the permit.

That wasn’t enough for commissioners.

“We just don’t have enough information,” said Commissioner David Lynde. “Period.”

Commissioners also wanted to know who would own and be responsible for the upkeep of the 12-mile-long power line, especially when winter snows and spring rains close the roads.

Johnston said PacifiCorp would likely buy the power line, but there were no concrete plans in place. “It would be my great effort to get PacifiCorp to take ownership of that line,” Johnston said.

“That’s 90 percent of our concern here,” Commissioner John Standley said. “You own it today, and somebody else owns it tomorrow, then somebody else.”

No one from PacifiCorp attended the meeting.

Commissioners also entertained an alternative route, if Windkraft Nord was willing to add to an existing Umatilla Electric Cooperative line running along Highway 204. It would mean running the line 22 miles rather than 12, but without installing a new power line in the area.

Commissioner Frank Kaminski said he would like to keep the number of power lines tracing through the county to a minimum.

“We’re trying to eliminate the number of cobwebs out there,” he said.

Commissioners heard from Nate Rivera and Josh Lankford from the Hermiston-based Umatilla Electric Cooperative for half an hour. Rivera said his company’s 69-kilovolt line running near the highway has a 99 percent reliability rate. He also said the company has snowmobiles and a snowcat to access hard-to-reach places in the winter.

A second 69-kilovolt line could be installed on a single pole opposite the Umatilla Electric line, Lankford said, though it may require replacing the current poles with sturdier ones. Johnston said the second line would require its own poles.

Windkraft Nord is also against that route because of the potential problems with removing trees to expand the line. Johnston worried the highway’s views – officially protected as a resource in Umatilla County statutes – would pose a problem.

He also said Umatilla Electric would charge the company for using its line.

After the commission’s decision denying Windkraft Nord’s request, Doug Corey, a Pendleton attorney for the company, said they will regroup and decide what to do next.

County Planning Director Tamra Mabbott said the company can apply for another route or it can appeal the commission’s decision by going to the board of commissioners.