Everyone knows it’s windy

By MIKE FERGUSON, Baker City Herald October 15, 2008 03:18 pm

The governor’s economic revitalization team works with city and county officials to site windfarms well and streamline the process


Just because there aren’t any windfarm applications before the Baker County Planning Department doesn’t mean the county can’t plan how wind turbines will be sited in the years to come.

A team sent by Gov. Ted Kulongoski helped county and state officials begin thinking about the process Tuesday.

Kulongoski’s Economic Revitalization Team regional team leader Scott Fairley said Baker County was chosen for the meeting because there could soon be wind turbine construction here and that the planning process can benefit from input from affected state agencies — including the Department of Energy, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Land Conservation and Developmen — early in the process.

Tom Stoops, energy facility siting manager for the Oregon Department of Energy, led the group through the state’s regulatory role in approving proposed wind projects. Projects under 105 megawatts — a megawatt powers about 800 homes — can go through a county-based approval track, while those at 105 megawatts or higher must go through the state’s Energy Facility Siting Council process.

Oregon’s windfarm boom — for now mostly clustered along the Columbia River Gorge — has led to a saying around Stoops’ Salem office, Stoops said: “Clean air, but cluttered skies.”

“I get plenty of calls about the project next door,” he said, referring to the windfarm at Telocaset that some Western Heights and Haines residents have objected to for its blinking lights and its impacts on their views.

The opposition to windfarms was almost nonexistent as recently as six months ago, Stoops said, but “now it’s becoming more organized.”

“Everyone’s interested in renewable energy,” Stoops said. “That’s why we want to have a dialogue and be smart about where we site them.”

At the state level, developers must develop an approved plan for their project. The process usually takes a few months.

“It’s not a beauty contest,” Stoops said of the application process. “If you meet the requirements, you get a certificate. But it takes a lot of up-front work.”

The studies that state agencies insist go into projects — their effect on wildlife, for example, or on grazing practices or human activity — often result in “a four-inch notebook crammed with paper,” Stoops said.

Counties, on the other hand, usually end up with between 25 and 100 pages of critique, he said.

State agencies stand ready to help cities and counties with their approval processes, but it’s better to involve state experts early in the process, said Bruce Eddy, regional manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The sooner we find out what your plans are, the sooner we can make suggestions about what the issues are,” Eddy said. “If you move into sage grouse leks, we can suggest you put it here,” he said, gesturing one way, “rather than here,” he said, sweeping his arm.

Baker City Planning Director Don Chance said he believes the aesthetic issue — marketing Historic Baker City to potential visitors, for example, within view of a large windfarm — is “the 800 pound guerrilla in the room.”

“Depending on the scale of a project, it could potentially change the appearance of large swaths of landscape,” Chance said. “We need to put more energy into managing the visual impact. There are really significant issues here.”

Chance said he wondered if the county’s planning commission or county commissioners could develop preferred sites for potential windfarms.

The county’s planning commission chair, Randy Joseph, said there are two places in Baker County where there’s sufficient wind for a windfarm: in north Baker County, where the Horizon project in Telocaset could one day expand over the Baker County line, and along the I-84 corridor from Durkee roughly to to the Lime plant near Huntington.

Jon Jinings, a regional representative with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, said that in his experience questions and concerns over windfarm projects can come from unexpected sources.

“My experience with Realtors is that they generally don’t favor additional regulations, and yet they have strong questions on how we think about land values,” he said. “People are asking, is this (approving a windfarm) a good idea in every instance? I think we will get a chance to chew on these questions for a while.”

Jeremy Thamert of Baker City, who founded Oregon Power Solutions, was the only private sector representative at Tuesday’s meeting. He told the group his main concern with the siting process is the response time he receives from state and local agencies.

“I understand there aren’t always resources available, but a timely response would help a ton,” Thamert said.

By meeting’s end, Fairley deemed the process successful, if for no other reason than it occurred before a developer had submitted an application for a wind project in Baker County.

“These windfarms produce good jobs and good tax benefits” for local communities,” Fairley said.

“We think they’ll produce economic development opportunities for rural communities, and we believe there will be a lot of activity in Baker County,” Fairley said.