On Father’s Day my wife asked want I wanted to do. I’m such an energy geek that I told her that I wanted to visit one of the wind farms that are popping up near Ellensburg, WA, just across Snoqualmie Pass from Seattle. So we loaded up our son and two dogs and drove two hours along I-90.
But first some history: in 2002 I founded the energy committee of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. At this time the nearest windfarm to Seattle was the Stateline project near Walla Walla, over 270 miles away. In 2003 the Sierra Club was contacted by opponents of the Kittitas Valley Wind Project and it landed on my desk. I made it clear to them that I was a proponent of wind power, but they were certain that I would agree with them that this was a bad location for a wind farm, as it would destroy the “pristine wilderness” of the valley. So another committee member and I drove out there to get a tour of the valley from the opponents. The entire time I was thinking about what a perfect place it was for a wind farm. There’s steady wind and power lines running right through a valley that has been filled with farms and ranches for generations. What soon became clear was there were two types of landowners in the valley: farmers and ranchers on one side and urban refuges and land speculators on the other. The farmers and ranchers, especially those who stood to make money on the wind farm, were supporters. All of the opponents had fairly small holdings and were new to the valley. The opponents threw every possible objection at the project (my favorite was that the wind farm would start fires, something their homes were much more likely to do), but it was just that they didn’t want to look at them. For years the developer worked through the process, including a trip to the state supreme court. The project is now fully permitted, but still not in operation eight years later.
I wanted to return to Kittitas County and see how things had changed for wind power there. Though I couldn’t visit the Kittitas Valley project, another project developed by the same company, the Wild Horse Wind farm has been in operation since 2006, even though it started later. Unlike most wind farms, the Wild Horse project welcomes guests and has a lovely, LEED Gold certified visitor’s center. Though we arrived after the last scheduled tour, one of the tour guides, David Wheeler, was willing to take us out and show us around. We donned hardhats and ventured out into the sun and light wind (by Kittitas Valley standards). He talked about the extensive work they did to protect the native plant species, the solar array that provides most of the energy to power the visitor’s center and the 149 wind turbines that provide 273 MW of electricity when the wind is blowing. While we were there it was what they consider light winds of only 17 mph. Most of the blades were spinning, but the output was only one-quarter of capacity.
Economically these wind farms have been great for Kittitas County. There are 40 people working keeping this wind farm up and running, not counting David and the other tour guides. These are well-paid jobs that can’t be outsourced. And the county not only doesn’t have to hand out tax abatements, but these wind farms are a major source of tax revenues for the county and the state.
All the wind farms operating currently or in construction in Kittitas county can produce about a Giga-Watt of power when the wind is blowing. That’s comparable to a large nuclear power plant. These wind farms cost about $2 a watt to build or about $6 average watt when you factor in that on average they produce about a third of their capacity when you factor in the wind not blowing and maintenance. That’s more than efficiency investments, which is about $2 an average watt, but much cheaper than nuclear which is about $10 an average watt.
But wind does have challenges other than cost and NIMBYs. The big one is integration. How do you keep the electrical grid working when the wind isn’t blowing? The more wind you add to the grid the harder it is to integrate the next Mega-Watt. The other is transmission. Most people live far from where the wind is blowing and it’s going to take a major investment to get the energy from North Dakota to Miami. Wind farms spread across the country help both issues.