Governor approves Skamania County wind farm

Developers say project is not financially viable in scaled-back form

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: March 5, 2012, 9:35 PM

 
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Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday approved a controversial wind farm in Skamania County, but the decision handed a hollow victory to developers who say the project isn’t economically viable in a scaled-back form.

Gregoire’s announcement gives a green light to the Whistling Ridge Energy Project, located just outside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area near White Salmon. It also limits the project to a smaller version — reducing the number of turbines from 50 to 35 — recommended last fall by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

Gregoire’s announcement wasn’t met with much celebration. Project developers have said Whistling Ridge won’t pencil out financially under EFSEC’s limitations, and can’t move forward right away. Meanwhile, opponents appear poised to challenge its approval in any form, hoping to stop the wind farm entirely.

“I don’t think either party can say that they’re happy in this case,” said Jason Spadaro, president of project developer Whistling Ridge Energy LLC.

Spadaro described Gregoire’s decision as a “good news, bad news situation” for the project. Even in a downsized form, the governor’s approval was welcome, he said, and better than an outright denial. But limiting development on private land outside the Gorge scenic area boundary sets a “dangerous precedent,” he added.

Low energy prices and uncertainty surrounding federal tax credits will halt the project for now, Spadaro said. Reducing it to 35 turbines won’t allow Whistling Ridge to generate enough energy to be economically viable, he said.

“That does not mean we will be abandoning the project,” Spadaro said. “We’re just going to have to wait for a more certain economic environment.”

The project continues to raise several environmental and property concerns, including visual impacts to the Gorge, and the loss of wildlife habitat and forestland. Conservation groups have also pointed to the presence of spotted owls in the project area. Among the most vocal opponents is Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, a Portland-based advocacy group.

Originally proposed at 75 megawatts, Whistling Ridge would account for only a minor blip on the Northwest’s energy portfolio. Washington and Oregon alone have more than 5,000 megawatts’ worth of wind projects in the ground — most of that near the Columbia River. It’s the scenic area that raises the profile of Whistling Ridge — and raises the bar for development, said Nathan Baker, a staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge.

“Some places should be off limits to industrial wind development,” Baker said. “And we believe that the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is one of those places.”

Friends will likely appeal Gregoire’s decision, Baker said. Legal challenges must be filed in Thurston County Superior Court within 30 days.

SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber Co. first proposed the $150 million wind farm in 2008. Spadaro is also president of SDS Lumber.

In a statement released Monday, Gregoire said her support of a curtailed Whistling Ridge reflects a “balanced approach” that benefits the state’s environmental and economic goals.

“A modified project with 35 wind turbines would help meet our need for clean energy and bring needed jobs and revenue to Skamania County, while preserving the esthetic and recreational benefits of the Gorge,” Gregoire said.

For now, the project remains in limbo. Gregoire’s approval essentially gives Whistling Ridge a permit to start construction within five years, said EFSEC manager Al Wright. That timeline could be extended for another five years before the permit expires, he said.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.