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Eastern Oregon wind project plans taller turbines

A planned wind project in Sherman County could have fewer but larger wind turbines and still produce the same expected 400 megawatts under proposed changes before a state siting agency.

Golden Hills Wind Farm, a subsidiary of Oakland, California-based Orion Renewable Energy Group, had sought to build the Golden Hills Wind Project as a 400-MW facility with 267 turbines on private land in northern Sherman County between Wasco and Moro. Late last year, the firm asked the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council to approve changes to the site certificate that the council had granted the firm in 2009. That earlier certificate approved the firm’s plans to build and operate the facility that also includes a 500-kilovolt transmission line, a 230-kilovolt transmission line, two substations, access roads and various other facilities.

Golden Hills told the council in its application that it seeks the change in tower number and height because of improvements in turbine technology that would let fewer turbines reach the planned project’s 400 MW maximum peak electric generating capacity.

“That’s really the big driver,” Maxwell Woods, senior policy adviser at the Oregon Department of Energy, said of the technological advances.

A proposed order from Oregon Department of Energy staff calls for approving the changes. The council – a board of volunteers appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state senate that oversees development of large energy facilities – could consider that proposed order at a meeting early next year.

The change would result in 125 turbines instead of 267. The turbines’ total height, including the rotor blades, would increase from 420 feet to 518 feet. The changes would also include adjustments to the site’s boundary and to the planned transmission lines, removal of plans for one of the substations and extensions of construction dates. Construction would start in June 2018 and end in June 2021 instead of June 2019. The project would send power to the Bonneville Power Administration electric grid, interconnecting just north of the existing BPA Klondike substation.

Parties involved in the case can comment on the proposed order by Jan. 6.

Several organizations responded earlier this year to the firm’s proposed changes. For instance, in May, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife called the project site appropriate because the project would be sited within agricultural wheat fields rather than intact wildlife habitat. But the department suggested certain conditions, like doing raptor surveys after the project is built and including the option to shut down certain turbines on demand or for temporary, seasonal restrictions in response to turbine-caused death of wildlife, depending on the ecology and movement patterns of the affected species. Such shutdowns have proven effective at reducing wildlife death from turbines, the department said.

But in March comments, the Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley argued that the project’s changes should prompt a fuller review. The group noted that several years have passed since the project’s approval and pointed to cumulative impacts on area wildlife and habitat. For instance, the analysis related to wind development impacts to elk and deer fails to include recent studies, the group said, urging the use of more current wildlife surveys. The group also called for surveys of bat species that use the area.