UNION, Ore. -– Driving down Main Street, nearly every yard displays a sign expressing either pro- or anti-wind sentiment. After more than a year of debate over a proposed wind-power project, it’s become a typical sight in this rural, northeastern Oregon community.
The proposed 300-megawatt Antelope Ridge Wind Farm has pitted neighbor against neighbor. Last year 52 percent of Union County voters opposed the project in an advisory vote. Because the vote was non-binding, the project still could go forward, pending approval from the Oregon Department of Energy.
Many wind farms in the state are sited in wheat fields or along the Columbia River. The Antelope Ridge Wind Farm would the first to be sited in a big game habitat, with possible risk to elk and deer. Right now the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is negotiating a mitigation settlement.
While Union County is one of the few places in the country where the debate over a wind farm has gone so far as to spark a ballot-measure fight, renewable energy expert John Audley says it’s indicative of the growing public debate about siting such green-energy projects.
Early in the development of wind power, public opinion hadn’t galvanized when it came to the value of renewable energy or the impact of towering, spinning turbines. In addition, there were plenty of prime spots for wind farms in remote areas, with few local residents to question their desirability as neighbors.
But as the Antelope Ridge debate illustrates, those days are vanishing.
“As you get a concentration of facilities such as we have in Oregon, you are likely to find a larger number of folks who are concerned about them,” says Audley, the deputy director of Portland-based Renewable Northwest Project.
(Click on markers to learn about proposed wind farms in these locations.)
Although about a half-dozen Northwest wind-energy developments have been met by loud opposition in the last couple of years, a public opinion poll for the Northwest News Network found they are still popular. The survey by Davis Hibbitts and Midghall found that 79 percent of residents of rural areas of the Northwest — support wind farms being developed within sight of their homes. In the region’s urban areas, support was 87 percent, according the survey. It was reported in January.
Officials don’t think the siting approval will happen any time soon for Antelope Ridge. One opposing group, Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley, has pledged to take the case to the Oregon Supreme Court.
Friends of the Grande Ronde Valley Chairman Dennis Wilkinson said his group is considering litigation as a way to stall the project.
“We’ll bog this thing down for two or three years at the minimum,” Wilkinson said. “And there won’t be any money in two or three years.”
The money Wilkinson is referring to comes in the form of subsidies. EDP Renewables (formerly Horizon Wind Energy) would receive a 16.4 percent tax break, said Antelope Ridge Project manager Valerie Franklin. As part of the tax-break deal, the company must put back into the community about $42 million over 15 years from the money it makes from the wind farm, she said.
Union County Commissioner Steve McClure said the Strategic Investment Program would greatly benefit the local economy.
“If you put it just straight on the tax rolls, only those taxing districts that have property inside of the wind farm benefit from it,” he said, adding that the tax-break arrangement will “spread that further across the community.”
But the economics looks different depending on whose glasses you’re wearing. Antelope Ridge proponents, from the group Union County Wind, said the project would bring much-needed jobs to the area. Member Larry Knowles said this is important after many timber mills shut their doors.
“I see this valley, and Union County, kind of dwindling away,” Knowles said. “The population is getting older, and we need to be rejuvenated, something to have kids to graduate from school and come back here and be a part of this community and the wind business.”
With anywhere from 150-164 turbines, EDP Renewables has estimated there will be 250 temporary construction jobs and 20 permanent jobs at Antelope Ridge. By comparison the company’s smaller Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm, situated across the valley farther from homes, has 61 turbines. Franklin said that project hired 14 permanent positions, 13 of those locally.
Opposition group chairman Dennis Wilkinson said the Antelope Ridge Wind Farm does not bring in enough jobs to offset the subsidy cost.
Commissioner Steve McClure said jobs wouldn’t be the only economic benefit to the area. He said there would also be a “trickle down effect” from landowners who would be paid for turbines placed on their land. La Grande, Ore., rancher Carol Byron said EDP Renewables would place six to 10 turbines on her property.
“We’ll be able to afford to go back and buy a new tractor from a local business,” she said. “The other thing is it may allow us or maybe another ranch to hire extra personnel.”
Others who live near the proposed site worry about health hazards from the constant turning of the wind-turbine blades and flicker from blade shadows.
Franklin said EDP Renewables has not determined where the energy would be sold. Much of the Northwest’s wind energy is sold to California. The Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm sells its energy to Idaho Power. One unique aspect to this site is that Union County’s winds blow hardest in the winter and summer months. That’s different from most other areas where wind picks up in the spring – the same time snowmelt increases hydropower.
Locals in the wind-power debate expect the outcome to effect other areas in the state, and possibly the region.
“A lot of people and a lot of agencies are looking at how this project is going to be sited, if it’s going to be sited,” Knowles said.
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