SHERMAN COUNTY, Ore. – Most Pacific Northwest residents say they wouldn’t mind views of a wind farm from their backyard. That’s according to a newly released environmental survey commissioned by EarthFix.
Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall (DHM Research) asked 1,200 residents in Washington, Idaho and Oregon how they felt about wind farms, describing the turbines as 10- to 20-stories tall with three 200 foot long blades. Seventy-five percent of poll respondents said they wouldn’t mind living near rotating turbine blades.
The survey found far less tolerance among Northwest residents for nuclear power plants. Twenty-three percent of survey respondents said they would favor building a nuclear power plant within 50 miles of their homes and 72 percent said they would be opposed. Idaho residents were more favorable than Oregon and Washington residents to a nearby nuclear plant; 32 percent there told the pollster they would favor such a development, compared to 19 percent in Oregon and 23 percent in Washington.
While most Northwesterners say they’d welcome clean-energy wind turbines to their sightlines, in some communities, actual wind farm projects have drawn opposition. Residents in Union, Ore., are deeply divided over the issue. Last spring, the Idaho legislature considered a moratorium on wind farms because people disliked the view. But there’s one county in Oregon where, it seems, almost everyone is happy.
MONEY MAKES THE WIND GO ’ROUND
In Sherman County, if you stand on John Hildebrand’s porch, you’ll see spinning turbine blades dotting the horizon in almost any direction you look. The 84-year-old farmer says he doesn’t mind the new view. In fact, residents say Sherman County may have found a way around turbine woes: money for each household.
“When I was young, they used to have a machine at the fair. It had a big flywheel you’d turn by hand, and you gave the guy a quarter. Then you put a penny in it, and it smashed that penny out. I look out there and I see those wind turbines blades turning and I think of that big wheel. Every time it goes around, it just chunks out a coin,” Hildebrand says.
Sherman County Judge Gary Thompson describes the horizon more bluntly. “I see it as ca-ching. ca-ching,” he says.
Every household in Sherman County receives around $590 each year, regardless of whether they have turbines on their property. Because this is one of Oregon’s poorer counties, that money can go a long way. The extra money helps residents who are not directly profiting from the turbines but still have their views disturbed. The system is modeled after Alaska’s compensation for oil pipelines, with payments coming from tax revenue.
EVERYONE BENEFITS Inside Hildebrand’s farmhouse, a model wind turbine adorns his coffee table. The real thing is visible from the bay windows in his living room.
Hildebrand was one of the first farmers in Sherman County to allow turbines on his property. Seventeen turbines now tower over his fields. They’ve generated income for about 10 years now.
“They’ve helped out my pocketbook,” he says. “We got more access to fields, through the roads, although we do have to farm around ’em, and that creates somewhat of a problem.”
Most of the 1,700 people living in the area are retired, on fixed incomes. Thompson says paying every household helps those residents who aren’t directly profiting from the farms but still have their views disturbed.
“They’re farmers that have been struggling over the years to make a living off the farm, and what this does is it guarantees their retirement,” Thompson says.
HELPING OUT SCHOOLS
At night red lights methodically blink off and on over Sherman County’s wheat fields, making their presence known even in the dark. Superintendent Ivan Ritchie can see towers from his backyard. Though Ritchie says the wind farms loose their uniqueness overtime, he says the school district would be in big trouble without them.
Money from the county’s five wind farms has also benefited students. The school district receives 20 percent of the wind farm revenue each year. Over the past three years that’s afforded computer upgrades, and staffed several elective classes at the high school, including a pre-law and pre-veterinary class.
“Prior to about three or four years ago, there was severe budget cutting that eliminated most of the elective programs at the high school, and with the advent of the wind dollars, we have been able to bring back in some art and drama into the program,” Ritchie says.
The county has also paid for a new green energy teacher. Each of the four cities in Sherman County – Wasco, Moro, Rufus and Grass Valley – also receives 100,000 each year. The no-strings-attached money has really benefited the small, rural towns, Thompson says.
KEEPING BUSINESSES RUNNING
It’s also helped many small businesses in the area. Kathy Neihart owns the Lean-to-Café and Goose Pit Saloon, the only restaurant in Wasco – “the best and worst” Hildebrand jokes. An “I heart wind” bumper sticker hangs near her cash register. She says business from wind farm workers has helped her pay off loans and hire new employees.
“I really was afraid that we would not be able to make it,” Neihart says. “Since we got to be kind of debt-free, it’s easier to run now, which is due to the fact that they came in and dropped a lot of money here. … This seemed to be the best thing that ever happened to this county.”
With five wind farms in the area, Thompson says the county is about half built out right now. Another large-scale farm is permitted but must wait several years to obtain a power purchase agreement.
Thompson says the county is looking at installing solar panels alongside the turbines to help with the wind farm’s indeterminacy. That idea is still years down the road.
Driving around the area, Mount Hood and Mount Adams peak over the turbine-lined horizon. Mount Reiner is visible on a clear day. Thompson says, for now, pretty much all Sherman County residents are thankful the wind farms came to town.
“They see the benefit,” he says. “We loose a little bit of our visual effects. It’s not the open country that it used to be, but it’s progress.”
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