A decision by Washington state siting authorities to protect scenic views calls into question the state’s process for reviewing wind-energy projects.
The state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) has declined to reconsider its October decision, which approved the 75MW Whistling Ridge wind project near the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, but ordered it to be reduced by 30%. The decision moves what would be the first wind farm on commercial timberland in the Evergreen State “further away from viability”.
Both the developer, Whistling Ridge Energy (WRE), along with local governments supporting the project, and opponents, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Seattle Audubon Society, had asked the EFSEC to reconsider its decision.
The EFSEC order has been sent to Governor Christine Gregoire, a renewables proponent in her final year in office, who must accept, reject or return it to the EFSEC, with modification instructions, by 5 March.
Opponents argue that even the scaled-down project should be denied a permit because it would spoil views from within the scenic area. Supporters want it to go ahead as proposed – with 38-50 turbines capable of generating 75MW – to bolster the economy of rural Skamania County and advance the state’s renewables goals.
In its reconsideration petition, which the EFSEC declined last month, WRE says the scaled-down project – with 15 turbines eliminated – would probably not be economically viable, partly because there is no room for larger turbines that could return the wind farm to its proposed capacity.
Jason Spadaro, president of WRE and SDS Lumber, which owns the land, says the EFSEC decision has delayed construction and made it smaller. That moves the project “further away from viability”, but he adds: “That doesn’t mean that it would never be able to go forward, either.”
The EFSEC says the arguments for reconsideration from both sides are repetitive or irrelevant to its decision. But the developer has raised concerns about the council’s process and interpretation of state and federal law.
If this small project – with only moderate or low visual impacts, according to the EFSEC’s environmental study – cannot be permitted, the siting process is hopelessly broken “and it is highly questionable whether the council will ever be able to site another wind energy project”, the developer argues.
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