New industry for 21st century

By Larry Knowles April 14, 2010 01:35 pm

What’s all this “not in my backyard’’ syndrome? Does Union County want to be part of the solution to weaning ourselves off oil and its derivatives, or part of the problem?

The wind is a resource, waiting to be utilized. True, it doesn’t provide the jobs the timber industry does (or used to) or have the profile of that industry, but wind energy is going to be around longer. Who can predict what wind farms and their support systems will morph into? We need jobs and consistent tax revenue in this area. Why look a gift horse in the face and say no?

Much has been made about the blight on the hills made by the turbines and its affect on property values and tourism. I have lived in numerous states and seen many brown hills on the way to the scenic areas of those states. Honestly, I don’t consider the Union/La Grande area destination points of interest. Nor does the state see this area as a designated scenic area (as opposed to the Columbia Gorge). Seeing wind turbines makes me pause and ask, “I wonder if they have tours up close and personal to learn about what makes them tick?” But that’s just me. Maybe the turbines will draw tourists, if advertised.

Don’t get me wrong, this valley is a beautiful place to call home. I recently moved from the Willamette Valley to be with friends, relatives, the recreational opportunities. Would a bunch of fans in the hills make any difference? Absolutely not.

How about we take the interest a step further and develop coursework at EOU to support alternative energy sources, given the wind and the biomass in local forests? And maybe there are better solitions than placing red flashing lights atop the towers. The whole industry would benefit from those answers.

It seems apparent that electric cars (that you plug in at night) will be more of our future. A lithium ion battery plant for electric vehicles is being built in Michigan. Cities across the U.S. are promoting plug-in stations for electric cars. Car companies all over the world have or are developing all-electric cars. Maybe some way to store the wind energy in the future for Union County. Who knows what’s on the horizon of the wind energy industry? Whatever it is, because of the local resource, we need to be part of it.

Can you imagine plugging in the millions of cars in the Northwest at night? Where’s the power going to come from? Wind is part of the answer.

Detractors mention the cost of wind energy — it is at least twice what we’re paying OTEC. That’s why OTEC doesn’t buy wind energy directly from Horizon. We should be thankful our co-op is not required to buy much alternative power for another decade, and that they will fight to keep rates as low as possible for as long as they can for us.

The fact is, we are spoiled in the Northwest by the cheap power rates thanks to the dams on the Columbia. The rest of the U.S. pays two to four times the amount we do per kilowatt. That’s why other markets can better absorb the cost of wind energy.

About decomissioning. Like most industries, modernization is required. I expect it will be the same way with wind turbines in Union County. A lot has been learned since the turbines of the ’70s and ’80s were erected. If you notice the Elkhorn turbines, removal is as simple as removing a few bolts, removing a couple of yards of concrete and covering the pad with a few feet of rocks and dirt. Horizon Wind has committed to decomissioning, if that becomes necessary. Personally, I think improved technology will update the existing turbines because I doubt the wind will ever stop blowing.

Will turbines kill birds? On occasion they will. Nowadays, turbines turn slower compared to the early 1980s versions that killed large birds in California. Nor are the local turbines placed with the density of the old turbines.

Will they affect movement of four-footed animals? Yes, they will, as the deer, elk and antelope have to walk around the towers. Some may use the towers for shade as has been documented. Like the pipeline in Alaska, animals seem to adapt. Can that be said of the two-footed kind?

Leaders in this county have a real opportunity to influence the amount of taxes paid by Horizon for the Antelope project and how they will be divvied up. We should be able to have a real impact on county, city and school budgets if taxes paid by Antelope are vigorously negotiated.

Harvesting wind energy is a new industry for the 21st century. We’re fortunate to have an exceptional resource in our backyard. Let’s be supportive.

Larry Knowles is a La Grande resident.