Wind farm proposals spur debate

By Terri Harber July 17, 2013 09:01 am

By Terri Harber

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

A standing-room only crowd attended a Baker County Planning Commission meeting Tuesday concerning two wind farms that could be built near Huntington and Lime.

The meeting lasted more than four hours. Dozens of residents spoke about the proosals, and most opposed new wind farms.

The developers have applied for conditional use permits. The two wind farms would share a substation and supply electricity to Idaho Power Co.

Maximum capacity at Huntington would be 20 megawatts, from 12 turbines. The Lime site would produce 30 megawatts from 12 to 18 turbines.

The Huntington site is about 4 miles northwest of the city and off of Malheur Lane, Durbin Creek Lane and Interstate 84. A cellphone tower sits on one of the lots and the entire location is more than 4,000 acres of exclusive farm use zone.  It’s used for grazing.

The Lime site also is within an industrial zone, about 4 miles northeast of Lime. Its more than 4,200 acres are zoned for exclusive farm and industrial uses.

Commissioners Chris Dunn and Linda Wicker didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting. Commissioner Bill Harvey has recused himself from the matter because of his opposition to the wind farm proposals.

There were enough members to make up a quorum with Chair Alice Trindle and Commissioners Suzan Ellis Jones, Jim Grove and Randy Joseph.

Harvey contends the turbines would ruin the views from surrounding highways and recreation spots as well as damage tourism efforts that highlight the scenic beauty of the area. 

“I can still see the ones in North Powder,” he said.

The project is “not worth destroying open space over,” Harvey also said. “Put ’em somewhere else.”

Joseph operates his own wind farm five miles north of Huntington on BLM land. He didn’t recuse himself from the two current proposals because, as he put it, “I have nothing to gain by their development.”

Joseph has advocated for more production of alternative energy and figured some might consider that “a bias.” However, he also said that he could render a land-use decision — especially after spending 12 years on the planning commission.

One of the opponents, Gary Marlette, demanded Joseph recuse himself. The remark provoked applause. 

County attorney Dan Van Thiel was also at the meeting and he did not advise Joseph to recuse himself.

Joseph said Harvey’s research material is dated. When Joseph tried to talked about a brand-new report by the U.S. Department of Energy, “U.S. Energy Sector Vulnerabilities to Climate Change and Extreme Weather,” many of the people attending the meeting booed.

The 83-page report says power plants need to use less water and even recycle what they use. Wind power doesn’t use water, for example, Joseph said.

Summer air conditioning needs exceed the available power from the hydroelectric plant because “snowfall and flows are down,” Joseph said.

Harvey pointed out that the Bonneville Power Administration can’t handle all of the windmill power.

Though the energy generated will be going to Idaho Power Co. and not to the local provider, Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative, which gets its supply from Bonneville, the electricity system “is interconnected,” Harvey said.

Baker City resident Jean Hulick said to Joseph: “You and your climate change. It’s just history repeating itself.”

Tara Richards, also from Baker City, said the windmill technology is obsolete and that the county should wait until something new and “less impacting” comes along.

Carrie Folkman owns Mountain View RV Park on Hughes Lane. She was among opponents with concerns about how the windmills would affect tourism.

“Any turbine is a negative impact,” she said. “(Tourists) love this valley.”

Bird-watchers wouldn’t be happy to see the turbines because the devices can kill birds, Folkman said.

Other opponents cited a variety of arguments: That the turbines wouldn’t be quickly removed once they wear out, that allowing these farms would open the door to similar developments going up all the way to Baker Valley and that the wind farms dry the ground around them.

The commissioners don’t have to consider visuals in their decision. Some of the opponents assert that this should be considered part of the effect on livability or economic impact, however.

Wildlife impact isn’t part of the commissioner’s criteria for approval, either, but they could apply conditions for approval related to this subject, Joseph said.

A wildlife habitat study was started several months ago and should be complete in spring 2014, he said.

Harvey pointed out that studying of the project area wouldn’t be complete until well after the conditional-use permit is approved — which is why the county should wait until those reports are finished.

Additionally, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife can only recommend certain actions be taken on private land when it comes to sage grouse because it’s not considered an endangered species.

Some turbines in the southern portion of where the projects would be constructed would be placed in the core sage grouse habitat. 

Robert Guertin, Oregon Wind Farms Inc., which is seeking the applications, said his firm has been working on the  local projects for six years and on similar endeavors for 25 years. 

The equipment will be state-of- the-art and could work well for at least 20 years or more without major repairs. Old turbines would be taken down pretty quickly because they are profitable scrap and, in this instance, doing so is part of the agreement with property owners, he said.

And while the wind doesn’t blow constantly, wind power is cleaner than gas or coal, Guertin said.

He stressed that wind farming is a good way for a farmer or rancher with marginally productive land to continue their ag operations with less of a financial burden.

The conditional-use permits need to be issued this year or the project won’t be as financially viable, he said. Federal incentives are expected to change or even end this year.

Some against the wind farms were critical of the tax breaks and other incentives received by developers. Joseph and Guertin pointed out that all other energy producers receive similar subsidies.

While many tourists dislike the turbines there are travelers who enjoy them. These would be carefully sited and large numbers won’t be bunched together, Guertin said.

“It’s a personal opinion on whether they look good or look bad,” he said.

Steve Culley of Richland spoke in favor of the wind farms, primarily because he believes diversity in energy sources “would be pretty smart.”

Most of the others who spoke in support of the wind farms are property owners who would host the turbines or others involved with the project.

The commissioners will complete their discussion about the projects next week. 

They intend to add wording that ensures the roads are narrowed once construction is complete as well as a time limit for removing worn out windmills. They also want to ensure the Oregon Trail — a valuable tourist attraction — isn’t negatively affected.  

Public comment has ended but the commissioners need to continue discussing possible changes to the list of conditions that must be met by the developers. They will complete this task in a meeting set for 3 p.m. on July 23 at the Courthouse.