The Central Oregon area in which I live is gorgeous. Snow capped mountains to the west, sparkling blue skies about 300 days a year (yes, we are lucky), Ponderosa pine trees and plenty of wildlife. Its also frequently windy here. A perfect place to site a wind farm, right?
Maybe not, if you believe the claims of a few environmental groups. Wait a minute? Aren’t environmental groups in favor of renewable energy? Why would they be opposed to an innocuous wind farm?
On a 10,000 acre ranch that covers portions of Deschutes and Crook county, the region’s first commercial wind farm may be sited. The area is empty now, devoid of everything but a scrubby juniper trees, bitterbrush and sagebrush. In the future, wind turbines may cover 20 acres of the ranch, on a raised, windy area known as West Butte.
The so-called West Butte Wind Power Project would be developed with as many as 50 turbines that stand between 400-575 feet tall. Electricity generated by the 104 megawatt project could power as many as 50,000 homes (3/4 of the population of my hometown of Bend, Oregon) with clean, alternative energy. It will also provide an additional $1 million in annual property tax revenues.
Applications for the project were submitted in December; a public hearing will likely be in Crook County next month. Only county approval is needed for the West Butte Wind Power Project. Projects that generate more than 105 megawatts also require approval from the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council.
The Oregon National Desert Association is concerned that the West Butte Wind Power Project could threaten sage grouse and harm other animals. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife have also commented regarding impacts to mule deer and Elk.
Brent Fenty, the executive director of Oregon National Desert Association, stated:
“Our point of view is we want to support renewable energy products. But just because its renewable energy doesn’t mean there aren’t impacts.”
Sage grouse congregate in “leks,” and engage in elaborate courtship rituals. The West Butte area has been designated as “irreplaceable habitat” for the sage grouse by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Sage grouse are not listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, but some are considering a listing.
In the coming years, we’ll see more and more conflicts between renewable energy projects, like the proposed wind farm, and alleged environmental impacts. The overriding question is: what will hurt the environment to a greater degree? Continuing to burn oil and gas to provide electricity, which will do nothing to slow global warming, or installation of wind, solar or geothermal projects that will provide clean, green energy? Many people believe in alternative energy, as long as it is “not in my backyard.”
We need power. Hydroelectric has been criticized, nuclear energy is no-go for many people, geothermal has its critics too. Wind arguably is one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to generate energy.
Developers of wind farms have to consider and mitigate potential environmental impacts. Just because a project will provide renewable energy does not mean it automatically gets approval. Like any other land use proposal, it must meet zoning code standards, which may include a showing of “no net loss” to potentially impacted wildlife. Depending on the jurisdiction, larger projects may be required to go through formal environmental review (preparation of an environmental impact statement), as well. An unbiased hearings officer or a group of elected officials consider all the evidence presented to them on a proposal – including benefits and potential negative impacts. And appeals may be filed to challenge an approval or denial of a wind farm project.
With respect to the West Ridge Wind Power Project, the developer states that they have spent more than a year studying its potential environmental impacts. A number of mitigation measures are proposed to help protect sage grouse habitat. I have read that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife have commented that gas and oil exploration studies show that productivity of sage grouse leks may decrease. Of course, there is a great difference between the potential impacts of drilling on a continuous basis for oil or gas, and the impact of free standing wind turbines, once they are installed.
The hearings officer considering the matter next month will have to decide if enough mitigation will be provided to protect sage grouse, as well as mule deer and elk that roam through the ranch. He or she can order additional mitigation, or ultimately deny the project if the evidence shows that habitats will be impacted to an unacceptable degree.
What do you think about the controversy and the West Butte Wind Power Project? Yes, no or need to know more?