Northwest view: Wind energy project near Gorge should be denied

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In 2006, Washington voters passed Initiative 937, the Energy Independence Act. This law requires most of the state’s energy utilities to obtain at least 15 percent of their power from “appropriately sited renewable energy facilities” by 2020.

Unfortunately, the term “appropriately sited” in I-937 is undefined and has been largely ignored. As a result, developers seeking to take advantage of huge government subsidies have proposed industrial-scale wind energy projects in highly inappropriate places.

The Legislature is weighing potential changes to I-937. And at the same time, an application for the single most controversial wind project ever proposed in Washington state sits on the desks of Gov. Chris Gregoire and Bonneville Power Administrator Steve Wright.

The fact that the Whistling Ridge Energy Project, proposed by SDS Lumber Co. in Skamania County, has even made it this far is a prime example of the unintended consequences of current energy policies.

The Whistling Ridge Project is proposed along the rim of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a national treasure comparable to the North Cascades, the Olympic Mountains, and Mount Rainier. Recently ranked by National Geographic Traveler as sixth internationally and second nationally among sustainable tourist destinations, the National Scenic Area is one of the crown jewels of Washington’s natural wonders. In a recent letter commemorating the 25th anniversary of the creation of the National Scenic Area, Gregoire called the Gorge a “wild and beautiful place,” “like no place on Earth,” and an “international treasure.”

The proposed project would be visible for many miles within the National Scenic Area, with dozens of wind turbines up to 430 feet high looming over the rim of the Columbia Gorge. Given the national and historic significance of the Gorge landscape, this is not an appropriate place to site an industrial wind facility. The project would irreparably harm the Gorge’s unique scenery and tourism-based economy, with numerous agri-tourism enterprises and wineries in close proximity to the project and more than a million visitors to the region each year who expect world-class views.

The project would also harm wildlife by permanently removing hundreds of acres of forested habitat, all of which is located within a designated Northern Spotted Owl Special Emphasis Area.

In 2010, several spotted owl detections occurred in the immediate vicinity of the project site.

Finally, although the project would likely harm migratory birds and bats, the project site has never been surveyed for these species during key migratory periods.

Against the backdrop of these significant adverse impacts, the project would provide only negligible benefits to the citizens of Washington, and is not needed. The average power capacity of the project would be less than 25 megawatts. This is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 17,000 megawatts of current wind energy capacity (including all built, approved and proposed projects) in Washington and Oregon. Indeed, the Northwest currently produces so much wind energy that the majority is distributed to California.

While state laws and policies should support wind energy, such support need not come with an “at any cost” mentality that would harm one of the most significant natural assets of the Pacific Northwest. Poorly sited projects that carry high community and environmental costs, such as the Whistling Ridge Project, are not appropriate and should not be allowed.

Kevin Gorman is the Executive Director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge.