Winds of Change Meet a Storm of Protests
by Daniel Brunell
SDS Lumber is one of the biggest cylinders in Klickitat County’s economic engine. Located along the southern Washington/Oregon border in the tiny town of Bingen, the forest products company has been looking for opportunities to diversify its business in order to survive the industry’s wild economic swings.
With constant winds along the Columbia Gorge—and clean technology all the rage—wind power seemed like a solid bet. But siting a wind farm has proven to be a stormy affair, drawing gale force opposition.
For years, SDS burned wood waste to generate electricity. In a common process called cogeneration, SDS generates 10 megawatts of renewable energy from scrap wood and materials. This allows the plant to be self-sufficient and sell some of its power back to the grid.
Like the Native Americans who lived in the Columbia River Gorge for thousands of years, SDS uses its resources efficiently and judiciously. Nothing is wasted. All parts of the harvested tree are used and their land is managed for long-term stability and stewardship.
“Around 2000, we started seeing a developing debate about renewable energy,” said Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber. “We knew that clean energy would be good for the company. With that in mind we started looking through our lands and found we had only one small site.”
A privately-held company, SDS was having trouble growing trees suitable for saw logs on Whistling Ridge in Skamania County. The site is located seven miles northwest of White Salmon, where the wind stunts tree growth as if they’d sprouted along the Pacific Ocean. So Spadaro moved forward with plans to turn the private forestland into a full-fledged wind project that would operate side-by-side with the company’s timberlands, which are used to grow fir for its sawmill and plywood plant.
The Whistling Ridge Wind Project would include 50 wind turbines producing enough electricity to supply more than 20,000 Northwest homes annually. It would add jobs, disposable income and tax revenue to a region hard hit by the recession.
The project has a long list of supporters, including AWB. However, it faces opposition from some preservationist and tourism groups as well as some neighbors who don’t want the project in their back yard.
Opposition to projects like Whistling Ridge is not uncommon. Just recently, another facility, Horizon Wind Energy’s Kittitas Valley Wind Project near Ellensburg, faced similar “NIMBY-ism” (Not In My Back Yard).
After hearing the complaints of a few adjacent landowners, the Kittitas County Commissioners rejected Horizon’s proposal. Horizon appealed the county decision to the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. AWB supported Horizon’s appeal and, after careful review, the council decided to overrule Kittitas County with minor stipulations. Horizon now plans to break ground seven years after the company first submitted its permit.
In the case of the Whistling Ridge project on the Columbia River Gorge, opponents cite everything from noise pollution and impaired views to proximity to the federal Columbia River National Scenic Area—even “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” a claim that wind turbines adversely impact the health of individuals living in close proximity.
“They throw out wild things but the real issue with these people is that they feel it will negatively impact their property values,” said Spadaro.
Officials with Skamania County ultimately approved the project. However, protests—coupled with the county’s decision to include wind power in its land use policies—prompted the Skamania Board of Commissioners to send the project to the Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council for review. The council is vetting the project and its decision will be forwarded to the governor for final approval sometime in 2010.
Robert Kahn, a wind energy consultant working on the Whistling Ridge Project, expressed dismay at wind project sitings.
“With SDS, here is a 65-year-old business that is one of the largest employers in the Columbia Gorge developing a project on their own private property, showing how you can do forestry and generate wind power in a compatible way in a county that has relied on the federal government timber sales and payment. Show me a better project that provides jobs, electricity and tax revenues,” he said.
“I hope that when people look at this project, I hope they ask the question, ‘Why does it have to be this hard? It shouldn’t be this hard.’”
In response to these difficulties and inconsistent ruling from county to county, people who are involved with the siting process are looking at ways to make alternative energy projects more uniform and consistent in the state of Washington.
“From my perspective, the state should adopt siting standards for alternative energy facilities that apply to all jurisdictions,” said Jim Luce, chairman of the EFSEC. Luce said the council is looking at developing its own standards, even though the council only rules on alternative energy projects on occasion.
“I think that would give all of the wind industry a level playing field and I think it would be in the public’s best interest to have those uniform state standards,” added Luce.
In 2006, voters narrowly passed Initiative 937, which mandates that electric utilities with more than 25,000 customers buy 15 percent of the electricity they supply from a list of renewable sources.
The renewable list excludes hydropower and electricity generated from pulping liquors, and the qualifying renewable must be generated within the Bonneville Power Administration service area (Washington, Oregon, northern Idaho and western Montana).
Another key ingredient is the incentives that local and state governments use to entice companies that invest in wind energy.
“An often overlooked component of wind energy is that the economic development benefits are overwhelmingly local,” said Arlo Corwin, director of project development for the Northwest office of Horizon Wind Energy. “The economic boom to a local community during the construction and from the resulting property tax base from a wind energy project is significant.”
In Washington, most of the current wind projects are in rural areas with few residences and easy access to high-voltage electrical transmission lines. In order for this carbon-free electricity to get to reach populated areas, high-capacity power lines must be built and the existing infrastructure must be upgraded.
“You can build these alternative energy sites, but if the electricity has no place to go, it’s not a great investment,” said Luce. “For example, upgrades to the I-5 and Columbia Gorge transmission infrastructure are needed to for the increase load growth in the Puget Sound area. Until these transmission projects are built, there is a ball and chain around the ankle of renewable resource development in Washington state.”
“The longer that the state can look out with maintaining renewable standard, maintaining the sales and use tax exemptions, and with future demand for line transmission the more development they are going to attract,” said Corwin. “[Building new infrastructure] will ensure that Washington will maintain its position as a wind energy leader.”
Whistling Ridge Energy's website