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Wind power generates a new cash crop in state
Seattle Times staff reporter
BICKLETON, Klickitat County — For many years, the wind was an unwelcome presence on John and Iva Grabner's wheat farm north of the Columbia River Gorge. Time after time, it would blow away clouds that might otherwise have offered rain for their crops.
"We felt so cheated," said Iva Grabner.
Today, such gusts bring prosperity.
One of the region's largest wind-power projects is being constructed on the Grabners' land. When the couple step outside their back door, they look across a shallow canyon to an altered landscape where dozens of turbines — each, with blades outstretched, about the size of a 30-story building — rise out of the field. Others yet to be assembled lie on the ground like pieces of gargantuan erector sets.
Once the Big Horn project comes online, the Grabners will receive more than $160,000 in annual royalties. Four neighboring landowners with turbines will collect payments as well. The project also is expected to generate more than $1.1 million in property taxes for Klickitat County.
The Big Horn is part of the dramatic expansion of wind power in rural Washington, as higher prices for natural-gas-generated power make this renewable alternative — boosted by federal tax credits — a hot commodity.
The first major commercial wind project — the Stateline near Walla Walla — began producing electricity in fall 2001. Today, four projects operate in Washington, and five more are under construction or through the permitting process, according to the Renewable Northwest Project.
Collectively, these wind-power projects will be able to produce enough electricity to supply more than 400,000 homes. Around the Pacific Northwest, wind-power projects now operating — or expected to come online — will be able to generate about 3 percent of the region's electrical energy. Some of the energy will be sold out of state. Some of the projects are bankrolled by developers, others by private and public utilities.
Klickitat County, with arid hills swept by winds, is a focal point of the boom. In a county hit hard by declines in the timber industry, sagging crop prices and the closure of an aluminum smelter, wind power is a rare growth industry, offering direct benefits to some rural landowners.
"Most industrial development really doesn't do much for the ranchers, so I think this played really well with the county commissioners," said Dana Peck, the county's former director of economic development.
They can take a toll on birds, although the deaths can be diminished through advances in technology and siting.
Though they don't belch pollutants into the air or dam up salmon rivers, the plants do alter the landscape through their sheer size, and nighttime strobe lights that help alert aircraft pilots.
Earlier this spring, Kittitas County commissioners rejected a proposed wind-power project and asked for additional setbacks to reduce the impact on nearby property owners. Klickitat County has supported wind power in most of the county, establishing areas zoned for wind power rather than subjecting each project to a more complicated permitting process.
The Big Horn project is the first under construction and is being developed by Portland-based PPM Energy, a subsidiary of ScottishPower, which recently opted to boost by 50 percent its wind-power production goals for the year 2010.
The project will have 133 turbines, with 46 of those located on John and Iva Grabner's farm.
The electricity will be sold to three California public utilities under a long-term contract.
To these utilities, the project "offers stable prices, and competitive prices, and that's a huge advantage to us," said John Roukema, a spokesman for Silicon Valley Power, one of the California utilities.
To the Grabners, who are in their 70s, the project will fund a retirement that otherwise might have required them to sell their farm. The royalties also will help two of their sons stay on the land.
"This has just been a godsend," John Grabner said.
Wind power is arriving in Bickleton at a time when local farming is in serious decline. Founded more than a century ago, this town of about 90 people prospered for decades as grasslands were turned into wheat fields. There once was a bank, meat market, hotel and theater. All are long gone.
In recent decades, Bickleton has carved out a tourism niche as the "bluebird capital," with hundreds of nesting boxes set along fence posts and other spots. (Studies indicate the turbines will not hurt the bluebird population, which generally flies well below the blades. They are expected to kill fewer than 220 songbirds of all species annually, according to a project study.)
Still, the town has struggled as farmers, discouraged by high fertilizer costs and low crop prices, turned much of their acreage back into grass under a federal program that offers conservation payments. Just last October, the hardware store closed down.
In hopes of improving the economy, most of the residents have thrown their support behind the Big Horn project.
But some Bickleton residents still balk at wind power and the changes wrought to the community.
"Some of it was visual. Some of it was the idea of change, that this is a rural farming community, and should they be putting these types of things up," said Jennifer Wilson, owner of the Market Street Cafe. "You hate to have divisions like this, but at the same time, you have to look at the big picture and the longevity of our community."
The benefits include new money for the local fire district, a volunteer operation with an annual budget expected to jump from less than $26,000 to more than $133,000. That money will result from the new property-tax collections that will be assessed against the Big Horn wind project, and will pay for updated fire equipment and a better ambulance, Wilson said.
Since construction began last fall, local businesses such as the cafe have had a surge of customers.
To help win community support, at least one company has proposed spreading out the royalties to include landowners who don't have turbines on their lands but still are affected by the projects.
Around Bickleton, royalties will be paid to 10 landowners whose land will host the actual turbines for the Big Horn project and for a second project — White Creek — that is scheduled to start construction later this summer.
A dream realized
The Grabners brought their ranch outside of Bickleton more than two decades ago, and even back then, they had an interest in harnessing the property's wind.
"We were on top of it, and just kind of dreaming, but right now it doesn't look so foolish," John Grabner said.
That dream started taking shape in 2001, when The Wind Turbine Co., a Bellevue-based firm, set up a tower to gauge the farm's potential. It looked good, with the wind a few hundred feet up often much stronger than at ground level. PPM then acquired the development rights and launched the Big Horn construction that is scheduled to be completed by this fall.
About 200 workers are now at the project site, which is spread over a roughly 40-square-mile area. They have dug underground lines and constructed an electrical substation to collect the wind power, and built some nine miles of above-ground lines to send the power to a major transmission line of the Bonneville Power Administration.
To set the foundations, workers must excavate deep into ground or blast through basalt rock. Crawler cranes pick up and stack the three giant pieces of the tapered turbine tower. A generator is bolted into place. Then the rotors, weighing 65,000 pounds and equal in size to the wings of a jumbo jet, are lifted into the air and maneuvered into place.
Week by week, sometimes day by day, more towers sprout on the Grabner land.
"It looks beautiful. Very space-age," said Iva Grabner.
John Grabner is more dubious. He was surprised by the amount of blasting and land clearing involved in the construction, and seems wary of the new scenery.
"If you are a part of it, it looks good," he said.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company