The Whistling Ridge Energy Project may be shrinking in scope a bit thanks to technological advances in wind energy turbines.
The proposed wind energy farm, which would be situated in eastern Skamania County near Underwood, has sparked controversy. Some residents of the area have objected to the visual impacts of the wind turbines, as well as noise, impacts to wildlife, diminishing of the National Scenic Area, and other factors.
In March 2009, Whistling Ridge LLC submitted a proposal to the Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) that called for a 75-megawatt wind generation facility. The proposal called for 50 wind turbines to be sited on a 1,152 acre site on privately-owned land that is now used as commercial forest land.
The seven-member EFSEC panel is in the process of deciding whether to approve or reject the Whistling Ridge application.
SDS Lumber Co. President Jason Spadaro, one of the partners behind the Whistling Ridge Energy Project, said the updated plan would require fewer wind turbines. According to Spadaro, that is because the newest wind turbines are more efficient than the earlier models.
"We did modeling based on 50 machines when we first applied," explained Spadaro. "The turbines each produced 1.5 megawatts. Now, with more efficient turbines, they can produce 1.8 megawatts and as much as 2.3 megawatts."
Spadaro pointed out that with the more effective turbines, fewer would be needed to get the 75 megawatts of power, adding that the EFSEC committee has been informed that Whistling Ridge would now require fewer turbines than earlier proposed.
"This would reduce the visual impacts," Spadaro said. "We offered this voluntarily. The 1.5 megawatt turbines are cheaper to purchase and install, but we wanted to respond and show EFSEC we are not unwilling to hear the concerns being raised."
The turbines under consideration would be 426 feet tall, measured by when a twirling blade is at its highest arc.
"We originally planned 50 turbines," Spadaro said. "Now our proposal is for no more than 38 turbines. To minimize visual and cultural impacts and impacts to wildlife, we will build fewer machines."
Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said the Whistling Ridge Energy Project's proponents have orally stated the number of turbines would be reduced, but have not released any maps showing which turbines might be dropped from the proposal.
"The bottom line is, we'd love to see a site map," Baker said. "The applicant has not been willing to produce a new map."
Baker added that Friends requested a delay in the EFSEC process until they could review a new map showing where the turbines would be located.
"They denied our request for a delay," Baker said.
Two individuals who spoke out against the proposed Whistling Ridge Energy Project at a recent public hearing in Underwood said reducing the number of towers would not necessarily change their opposition to the plan.
Underwood resident Sally Newell said she did not believe the number was the primary issue.
"I fail to understand how going from 50 to 38 turbines really addresses the main issues opponents have raised, including any transportation in the construction phase that will make life in Underwood just unbearable," Newell said. "My concerns are transportation and the blinking lights. If you're looking at 38 turbines versus 50, I don't know if it makes that much difference. It's pretty unsightly."
Newell added that the proximity of the National Scenic Area needs to be considered.
"This proposal is particularly insulting because we live in a place where people follow strict rules for scenic protections, and now they'll have turbines right over their back yards," Newell said. "I hate to see the entire corridor lined with these things."
Jurgen Hess, a Hood River resident who was worried about the visual impacts of the turbines, said the location of the remaining 38 turbines would play a big role in whether he believed reducing the number was a game-changing move.
"It all depends," said Hess. "Which towers would be eliminated; which towers would not be built? If the 38 towers would be the same height and if the most visually intrusive -- with high impact from key viewing areas -- 20 towers were to be eliminated, than of course the answer is yes. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details."