BICKLETON — At the Bluebird Inn, social center for this unincorporated town of about 90 residents, old-timers still spin stories of eastern Klickitat County’s glory days as a Wild West outpost. Washington’s oldest continuously operating saloon, built in 1882, survived a series of fires that ravaged the downtown area. It still has its original plank floors and vintage pool table.
In the old days, the tavern hosted all-day poker games and branding parties and even had a barbershop. Women weren’t allowed inside until the late 1960s.
But these days, the chatter at the Bluebird Inn is likely to be about the latest out-of-town energy company looking to lease land from local farmers, the newest wind turbines going up out on East Road, or this week’s road closures to accommodate the tractor-trailer rigs that shuttle the sleek white tower sections and turbine blades from ports in Vancouver, Longview and Everett to this sea of dryland wheat above the Columbia River.
Eastern Klickitat County’s wind energy boom has utterly transformed the landscape. In the past four years, 624 wind turbines have risen along the crest of the Columbia Hills and on ridges south and east of this town of 90, each the height of a 41-story building as measured from the ground to the tip of the highest turbine blade. That number is likely to reach 1,000 when and if all the projects that are under construction or working their way through the permitting process come on line.
The gusty Gorge winds that set those turbine blades spinning have the capacity to generate more than 1,200 megawatts of power once all the wind farms under construction in Klickitat County are generating electricity — enough to serve about 300,000 homes. That’s more than the generating capacity of Portland General Electric’s Trojan nuclear power plant, which closed in 1993, or about five natural gas-fired plants, such as the River Road plant operated by Clark Public Utilities.
Though Clark County has no wind farms, the astonishing wind energy boom that has transformed the east end of the Columbia Gorge has reverberated here as well.
Thousands of wind turbine components pass through the Port of Vancouver every year. A proposed Bonneville Power Administration transmission line through eastern Clark County, needed to carry wind-generated electricity to market, has triggered fierce opposition from homeowners in the area. Clark Public Utilities has made a major investment in wind energy to meet state renewable-energy requirements. And a few local entrepreneurs hope to jump on the wind energy bandwagon too.
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For Bickleton, the wind-powered transformation has been abrupt, and mostly positive.
Thanks to property tax revenue flowing into the 300-square-mile Bickleton Fire Protection District, the community recently bought a new $160,000 ambulance, and plans are under way for a new fire hall.
Ground was broken last month on a new $10.5 million, 42,000-square-foot school building to replace the Bickleton School District’s two 1950s-era schools, which lack adequate heating and septic systems. The sprawling, 500-square-mile school district serves 100 students.
School Superintendent Rick Palmer huddled for two years with the county assessor crunching numbers from wind energy developers before going to voters with an $8.9 million bond measure in 2008 to build the new school. “I wanted to make sure I had a voting bloc,” he said. “We passed the bond with 80 percent.”
Property taxes from Iberdrola Renewables and other energy companies with wind farms in the school district will pay 97 percent of the school’s cost.
Once the school and an adjacent park are completed, “We’ll start to look more like a community and less like a wide spot in the road,” Palmer said. He hopes the school will attract more people to live in Bickleton — and build support for a community water system to replace the town’s wells.
The arrival of large-scale wind development also has thrown a lifeline to Bickleton-area farmers who previously scratched out a living growing dryland wheat. Farmers are leasing land to big energy companies for the rights-of-way, easements, tower pads, underground transmission lines and construction trailers needed to erect and maintain the wind farms. Most also have negotiated deals that allow them to collect a set percentage of revenue from energy generation once the turbines start spinning.
Lawrence Goodnight and his wife netted less than $20,000 annually from their two wheat farms until wind came to the rescue. He wouldn’t reveal how much Iberdrola Renewables is paying the couple for leases on his land, but the going rate in the region is about $10,000 per turbine per year.
“Financially, it probably saved me,” Goodnight said. “There’s enough revenue to take care of me fine. I can retire.”
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It all happened so fast.
Five years ago, eager to join the wind energy boom, Klickitat County commissioners adopted a renewable energy ordinance that permits the siting of wind farms and solar projects on one-third of the county’s land base, basically everything south and east of the two-lane road that links Goldendale with Bickleton.
That same year, voters in Washington approved a renewable energy standard requiring the state’s major utilities to incorporate 15 percent renewable energy in their portfolios by 2020. Oregon followed with its own ambitious renewable energy standard in 2007. In 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order requiring that California electric utilities include 33 percent renewable energy in their portfolios by 2010.
Those standards created a huge government-driven market for renewable energy up and down the West Coast. In the past three years, electricity generated by wind farms in the Pacific Northwest has doubled.
Much of the electricity generated by wind farms in Eastern Washington and Oregon will be consumed far from the wheat fields of the Columbia Plateau. By the end of 2010, the BPA projects that 47 percent of the wind generation capacity connected to its grid will be under contract to California utilities.
Federal tax breaks have helped fuel the explosive growth.
Since 1992, wind energy developers have been eligible for a federal production tax credit worth 2.1 cents per kilowatt hour once their projects begin generating electricity. But that tax break lost its luster during the Great Recession. “The production tax credit has been less useful to the wind energy industry since the economic collapse,” said Jan Johnson, spokeswoman for Iberdrola Renewables.
The federal stimulus bill, passed in February 2009, extended the production tax credit and also gave energy developers the option of receiving a 30 percent investment tax credit retroactively for wind farms placed in service before 2013 if construction begins before the end of this year.
That investment tax credit is vital, Johnson said. “It means that after we’ve spent the money, we get the credit,” even though new wind farms are not yet producing energy.
The new deadline has created a rush to get turbine towers in the ground by year’s end.
“If you finish it before Dec. 31, you get the credit,” Johnson said. “If you don’t, you don’t.”
Hefty federal subsidies and a guaranteed market set the table for a wind energy boom that has put Klickitat County and the entire Columbia Plateau on the national wind energy map. But another hurdle looms after the election.
Wind energy companies nationwide are urging action by Congress before year’s end on a national renewable electricity standard that would extend federal incentives for investment in clean energy. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which has bipartisan support.
“As far as we are concerned, it is of a critical nature for Congress to address this,” said Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman. “We’ve reached a point with pending expiration of eligibility for the stimulus that the industry could potentially experience a significant slowdown. That would be unfortunate, because the industry has the potential and proven ability to create good jobs all over the country.”
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The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act, with its protections for scenic vistas, has so far kept wind turbines out of Skamania County, although a wind farm has been proposed for private timberland just outside the scenic-area boundary near White Salmon. The Whistling Ridge project, which is supported by county commissioners but opposed by environmental groups and some county residents, is under state and federal environmental review.
In eastern Klickitat County outside the scenic area, no such restrictions exist. The first turbines, planted along the crest of the Columbia Hills, pop into view near the U.S. Highway 97 bridge and march all the way from the Maryhill Museum to the hamlet of Roosevelt, 32 miles to the east.
Klickitat County’s energy overlay zone has succeeded beyond the county’s wildest dreams. When commissioners adopted the fast-track zoning, they hoped to attract enough wind farms to generate 1,000 megawatts of power over a 20-year period. They reached their goal in three years.
A total of $285 million in new construction this year will go onto the county tax rolls in 2011, according to the county assessor’s office. Not only will that money pay for new schools and ambulances; it will also give taxpayers a break. The tax rate for the Goldendale School District dropped from $15.50 per $1,000 in 2001 to $9.17 this year because of property tax revenue paid by wind energy companies.
Wind development has brought hundreds of jobs to a sparsely populated county once economically dependent on timber and agriculture. “There are a lot more local people involved than we expected,” said county economic development director Mike Canon. It takes three to six months to build a wind farm, and during construction, each site employs about 15 wind energy “geotechs.”
Programs in The Dalles, Ore., and Vancouver offer degrees in “windsmithing” for high school graduates. Students are taught math and engineering skills, as well as how to safely climb the turbine towers to perform maintenance tasks.
County residents also have benefited from a network of new and improved roads built by the energy companies to haul their turbines to remote sites. “Poor roads have been a firefighting risk,” Canon said. “Now you have those good paved and gravel roads.”
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The wind boom has not been without controversy.
Klickitat County’s energy overlay zone became final only after the county reached an agreement with environmentalists to re-evaluate the zoning in seven years or after the construction of 1,000 megawatts of wind power. A hearing was held earlier this year to take public comment on the impacts of the fast-track zoning.
The environmental group Friends of the Columbia Gorge has challenged the zoning, saying it’s no longer a “valid gauge” of the cumulative impact of wind energy in Klickitat County. “Wind energy facilities have been developed in Klickitat County at a rate roughly seven times as fast as projected, with no end in sight,” wrote Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends.
One impact unforeseen in 2005: The new Windy Flats West project, built by San Diego-based Cannon Power Group, will rise directly across the Columbia River from Celilo Village, the historic Indian fishing site flooded by The Dalles Dam. “The proposed wind towers would break the skyline and be highly visible from the Celilo area,” Baker wrote in his appeal of the project.
Friends has called for a new environmental review of the wind energy zoning. It wants the county to consult with the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the Forest Service, the National Park Service and Washington Parks and Recreation before proceeding with new projects.
Canon disagrees that the zoning ordinance is out of date. He said it has been amended after each major wind project, and that its analysis of impacts — on birds, bats, wildlife and Native American cultural sites — looks not only at Klickitat County but at the entire Columbia Plateau.
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The astonishing concentration of wind turbines in eastern Klickitat has raised eyebrows locally, as well.
“Overall, it has changed the dynamic of the town,” said Jennifer Wilson, owner of the Market Street Cafe in Bickleton, who married into the community 22 years ago. “It’s changed the view to the south. It’s changed who comes to town. Most of the companies are not from around here.”
Farmers appreciate the lease revenue, she said, though installing underground transmission lines can mean tearing up established cropland. And the new roads are nice. “For the most part, it’s been pretty positive. But a small percentage of people aren’t happy about how it’s changed the landscape. It’s like, ‘Wow, what happened to our nice expansive views?’”
Construction delays and road closures are a hassle, she said. “You got to make mess to build a large project like this.”
Bird mortality is an issue, especially with tourists and local bird-watchers, Wilson said. “There are those who think, ‘Oh, you must be killing all the birds in the area.’ There have been changes in where the birds nest. It has been a sore subject, and there’s controversy about how they account for the bird kills.”
As the turbines march closer to town, some Bickleton residents are saying they wouldn’t want them any closer. “It’s been kind of a reality check for people,” Wilson said. “Up to now, the turbines have all been in rural areas.”
Al Wright, director of the Energy Facility Siting and Evaluation Council, the agency that licenses wind projects in Washington, said he’s seen a similar trend across the state.
“It’s the age-old cumulative effects issue,” Wright said. “It’s, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t want to see windmills everywhere.’” Especially around Goldendale, he said, people have told him, “I drive up there, and all of a sudden I’m seeing something I’m not sure I like anymore.”
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Lawrence and Ada Ruth Whitmore are among those who have mixed feelings. The farm couple, who are in their 80s, lease some of their ranch property north of Roosevelt to Iberdrola Renewables.
“It saved us,” Lawrence Whitmore said. Before Iberdrola came along, their land was in the federal Conservation Reserve Program. Basically, the government was paying them not to grow wheat. But those payments are about to expire.
The lease program has triggered “turbine envy” among some farmers, he said. “The ones that are unhappy are the ones who don’t have them!”
The Whitmores’ 3,000 acres has been in the family since 1902. His father homesteaded the property. They are so devoted to preserving the history of eastern Klickitat County that they have built a museum of local history on their property, complete with a one-room schoolhouse and a huge shed filled with antique cars.
Thanks in part to revenue from the seven wind turbines on their farm, their five children will inherit the land.
It’s an uneasy trade-off, Ada Ruth Whitmore admits.
“We have a daughter who told us we’ve sold our soul.”
Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org.