Feeling the wind's worth

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OAKESDALE — Even five years ago, putting up 58 turbines to harvest the wind gusting across the rolling hills of the Palouse in northern Whitman County wouldn't have made economic sense.

The turbines were too expensive and their electrical output wasn't high enough to justify the multimillion-dollar investment, said Paul Gaynor, CEO of First Wind, the Boston-based developer of the Palouse Wind project.

On Monday, community members gathered to celebrate seven months of operation at the $220 million wind farm near Oakesdale, Wash.

"The cost of wind has gone down tremendously," Gaynor said, citing a new generation of turbines from Vestas American, the U.S. subsidiary of a Danish turbine manufacturer.

The blades, made in Colorado, produce more electricity from low wind velocity than previous models. The electricity is sold to Avista Corp., which powers about 30,000 homes from the wind.

In an added benefit to the Spokane-based utility, electrical output from the wind farm peaks in winter when customer demand for electricity is at its highest, Gaynor said.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee touted the project as green energy produced from the wheat, pea and barley fields of the Palouse, and a perk for local growers.

"Farmers are getting $4,000 checks while watching these turbines spin," said Inslee, who attended the dedication.

Growers who lease the land for the turbines get royalties based on wind production. Output will vary, but payments should be somewhere around $4,000 per year per turbine, First Wind's Gaynor said.

In the past decade, the amount of electricity from renewable sources in Washington has tripled, Inslee said. He credited Initiative 937, a ballot measure passed by citizens in 2006 that requires utilities to get more of their energy from renewable sources. New wind development also benefits from a federal tax credit valued at about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

"We know that we are going to have to de-carbonize the grid if our grandkids are going to enjoy the same Washington we see today," said Inslee, a staunch proponent of green energy.

Iconic Washington landscapes and products — from glaciers to oysters to salmon — are at risk from a warming climate, he said.

The Palouse wind project will help Avista meet the company's renewable energy requirements, Avista CEO Scott Morris said.

About 7 percent of Avista's electrical generation now comes from wind, which includes the purchase of kilowatt-hours from a Stateline wind farm.

Wind power still costs more than other types of electrical generation, Morris said. He wouldn't give specifics, but said it's more than 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour — Avista's average cost for all types of electrical generation, including hydropower, coal, biomass, wind and natural gas-fired turbines.

But wind generation has dropped dramatically in price, Morris said. Four years ago, the utility considered building its own wind farm in Reardan, but decided the cost was too high. Prices have declined 40 percent since then, and Avista was able to get a better deal by signing a 30-year contract for electricity from the Palouse project, Morris said.

The wind farm is the first in Whitman County. The project triggered a new code written to address wind farm development and the county's first-ever environmental impact statement, said Alan Thomson, the county's planning director. The wind farm proposal still went through several appeals from citizens, who were concerned about low-frequency noise from the turbines.

Four of the turbines ended up on Karen and Ken Hanson's 1,300 acres of wheat, peas and barley, farmed by their son, Mitch.

The turbines and an access road take up less than five acres of their property. The farm will get its first full royalty check in August.

"I think they're pretty," said Karen Hanson, watching the slowly revolving blades against the backdrop of green fields. "It's mesmerizing to me."