Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire on Monday approved a downsized version of the controversial Whistling Ridge wind farm in Skamania County, though its developers say the project is on hold because it’s not currently economically viable.
Gregoire’s approval allows up to 35 wind turbines on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge, near the town of White Salmon.
Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council approved the project last October provided that 15 of the 50 turbines proposed were eliminated to lessen the visual impact within the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
Gregoire said in a news release the project would help meet clean energy needs while bringing needed jobs and revenue to Skamania County, “while preserving the aesthetic and recreational benefits of the Gorge.”
“This decision is a balanced approach, and one that serves all citizens of the state,” Gregoire said.
SDS Lumber Co. of Bingen and Broughton Lumber Co. of Underwood proposed the $150 million Whistling Ridge wind farm in 2008. The project comprised 50 turbines on 1,200 acres the companies own just outside the scenic area on the ridges above White Salmon.
The project’s 430-foot turbines loomed over the town of Underwood, and several strings were visible from various vantage points within the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
SDS President Jason Spadaro said the project was not currently feasible. Uncertainty over the renewal of the federal production tax credit, which expires at the end of 2012, means few new wind projects are going forward. California’s new limits on renewable power imports have also slowed development in the Northwest. Finally, Spadaro said the state’s decision to scale back the project undermined its economics.
That decision, he believes, is legally questionable because federal protections of the gorge aren’t supposed to hamper projects outside the scenic area boundary. But he said the company was unlikely to take on the expensive legal fight to challenge it.
“We’re not abandoning the project, but in the current environment of great uncertainty for renewable energy, the project is unlikely to move forward,” Spadaro said.
Project opponents had raised a raft of issues with the council’s earlier decision, ranging from scenic and wildlife impacts to mitigation measures such as nighttime lighting on the turbine blades.
Opponents, including Friends of the Columbia Gorge, have 30 days to appeal the governor’s approval in Superior Court. Nathan Baker, an attorney for the group, said an appeal was likely because the site certificate approved was valid for 10 years.
“They have every incentive to pocket the site certificate and see what the future holds,” Baker said. “If it’s not viable today, it maybe in the future, and that’s why the Friends is likely to appeal.”
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