Next week, voters in northeast Oregon will test just how much support there is for wind energy in the region.
A Texas company wants to build a large wind farm near Union, Oregon. Unhappy neighbors have forced the first public vote on a wind development in the West.
The spirited campaigns on both sides reflect the increasing difficulty of siting alternative energy facilities — even in our supposedly “green” Northwest.
Tom Banse has been traveling through eastern Oregon this week for a two part series on how wind power is seen by those closest to it. Here’s his first report.
Likely found on a busy street near you this week: campaign volunteers waving political signs. Here on the edge of La Grande the familiar scene comes with a twist. The signs don’t feature the name of a candidate, but rather say “No more wind farms.”
Pamela Wilkinson: “I’m against all wind power because it’s not clean and it’s not green. It destroys the environment. It’s energy sprawl.”
Earlier this year, Union County commissioners were barraged by complaints about how 164 proposed wind turbines would “industrialize” the postcard pretty Western landscape.
So the county placed an unusual question on the general election ballot. It asks voters in this corner of eastern Oregon whether they support or oppose a big new wind farm called Antelope Ridge.
Mike Merriman is voting against it.
Mike Merriman: “If the stimulus money would dry up and the government quit paying the overseas outfits to take our money — our tax money — they’d close their books and go home. They’re only here for what they can get out of us.”
The vote may be non-binding, but it’s turning into one of the hottest items on the November ballot here.
Farmer Doug Lewis grows wheat, peppermint and organic potatoes about 5 miles away from the proposed wind farm. He’s voting in favor of it.
Doug Lewis: “I just think it’s a great opportunity for us to harvest another crop in this area. I guess what I would like to say is we need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
In the distance, Lewis can see the spinning blades of the valley’s first wind farm. He disagrees with those locals who consider it a blight or a threat to property values.
Doug Lewis: “I see these slow, graceful rotating blades and I think, ‘Gee, they’re generating electricity today up there.’ I think what a wonderful thing. We’ve got a renewable source. We don’t have smoke coming out of the stack. It’s a local resource that’s going to put money back in people’s pockets locally.”
The countywide vote on wind power is advisory only. Authority over large energy projects actually rests with state government in Oregon and Washington.
In Salem, a spokeswoman for Oregon’s permitting agency says the election outcome will be treated like a public comment.
The wind farm developer is not casting the fate of its project to the political winds. Texas-based Horizon Wind Energy has bankrolled a vigorous “yes” campaign.
Valerie Franklin is project manager for the company.
Valerie Franklin: “I really do think we’re going to have a positive outcome. This will just be demonstrating a microcosm of what’s going on in the nation which is that the majority does support the jobs and economic investment and clean energy.”
On the other hand if the winds change and people vote no, the message would also reverberate regionally and nationally. So says opposition organizer Dennis Wilkinson.
Dennis Wilkinson: “There are 165 groups right now fighting wind farms across the United States. Those people are going to pick up on this and say, ëHey, Union County did this. Why don’t we? Let’s get it on the ballot.’”
A senior analyst at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council doesn’t see the region bailing on wind. But Jeff King says there clearly are problems when developers move into more scenic areas or now into forestland.
Jeff King: “I don’t think the shine has come off so much as perhaps people are being a little more realistic about it. Or perhaps the downsides as well as the upsides are becoming a little more apparent.”
King says no matter what happens in Union County, he foresees wind power continuing to expand in our region, but mainly in those places where the aesthetic or ecological impacts are the smallest.