A $220 million commercial wind farm that would be the first in the region and could bring 100 jobs to Crook County has received the initial go-ahead from Crook County planning commissioners.
“We’re excited and proud to be the first renewable energy wind project in Central Oregon,” said Sarah Rankin, the project coordinator for the developers of the West Butte Wind Power Project. “It looks like things are going forward, and I think this project will be a source of pride for the whole community.”
Planning commissioners voted 6-0 on Wednesday evening to approve the application. A document will be prepared by the Crook County Planning Department within the next two weeks that will be considered the official stamp of approval. Because the project will generate fewer than 105 megawatts of power, it only requires an OK from the county.
Officials from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife expressed concern at earlier public hearings that the project, which would sit on a 10,000-acre private ranch in southern Crook County, could damage a sage grouse population.
ODFW officials suggested the developers keep wind turbines three miles away from a nearby sage grouse lek, an area the birds use for their mating rituals. But the developers said that would wipe out their project. Planning commissioners agreed, mandating only a quarter-mile setback from the lek.
Worries about wildlife
Commissioner Arleen Curths said the $1 million annually in property taxes the county could receive from the wind farm outweighed the argument about protecting the birds.
“There is no data on how windmills will impact the sage grouse. There just is no data yet,” Curths said. “We thought it was a good idea to use this small group of birds to collect that data. … We had to look at 27 birds or a ($220) million project. We elected to go with the project.”
ODFW Sage Grouse Conservation Coordinator Christian Hagen was in the field Thursday and said he had yet to review the proposal.
The sage grouse is being considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act. In an earlier interview, Hagen said little is known about the effects of wind turbines on sage grouse populations.
The West Butte Wind Power Project would be the area’s first. But, he said, data from gas and oil exploration studies show that development near the birds negatively impacts their mating productivity.
Heidi Bauer, with the Crook County Planning Department, said the commission created a technical advisory committee to monitor wildlife. The group will include officials from ODFW, the Oregon State University Extension Office, the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the project developers, among others.
Participants are being asked to consider the impact not only on sage grouse, but deer, bats and other wildlife. At a later date, the committee will present its findings to the planning commission.
‘We want to set a precedent’
Rankin, with West Butte Wind Power, said the developers have wanted the application process to be collaborative.
“We want to set a precedent of this being a good environmental green project with minimal environmental impact,” Rankin said.
Still in the early stages, the project could have anywhere from 34 to 52 wind turbines, standing approximately 400 to 574 feet tall. Sitting atop West Butte, the turbines would be on a ranch in a southern section of Crook County. The project, however, would only occupy about 20 acres.
“I’ve been up there, and the project will not be visible on any public highway unless you really know where to look for those windmills,” Curths said.
Rankin said the project could generate enough energy to power about 50,000 homes. The power would be fed into an existing transmission line, and, she said, it’s possible the developers will eventually sell the project, or simply the power, to another company.
The project would need 80 to 100 people during the construction period, and 10 to 12 full-time employees after completion.
Rankin said the project could still need permission from the Bureau of Land Management for access to a road, and, she added, the project could always be appealed.
“If things go well and proceed as we would like them to, we would like to start construction during the spring of 2010,” she said.