Central Oregon wind projects on hold

Different reasons for delays

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Jan 19, 2014 at 12:01AM

Two wind projects planned for Central Oregon are still on hold, but it’s not because of the end of federal tax credit for wind power.

Instead, the West Butte project planned for a ridge east of Bend has lingering ownership questions, and the Echanis project planned for high ground near Steens Mountain is embroiled in a lawsuit in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

West Butte has approval from Crook and Deschutes counties. Echanis has approval from Harney County. But both projects have yet to go from development to construction despite years of discussions.

Federal lawmakers didn’t renew a tax credit for renewable power production when it expired at the end of 2013. Without the incentive of the tax credit, which paid 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour and could result in millions of dollars per project, there will be a substantial impact to wind projects around Oregon, said Jerry Cordova, who reviews the wildlife impact of wind projects for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bend.

The tax credit “makes investing in wind energy quite a lucrative thing,” said Cordova, a fish and wildlife biologist for the agency. Started in 1992, the credit has expired before but lawmakers eventually extended it. This time it is unclear whether they’ll extend it. In the meantime Cordova said wind power project developers will be doing additional planning and waiting to see if the tax credit comes back.

Aaron Rachlin, president of California-based R-Squared Energy, the lead company of the planned 104-megawatt West Butte Project, said the state of the tax credit adds to the “tough environment” of wind development.

But he didn’t want to go into the details of what has slowed the project, which would have 34 to 52 turbines and produce enough power for about 35,000 homes. “We are still working on it,” he said, “but that is all I want to say about it right now.”

A year ago Rachlin said the company was looking to sell the project and a “major developer” was interested. Now he said the deal didn’t go through. He wouldn’t reveal what R-Squared Energy plans to do next.

There is no mystery about the ownership of the 104-megawatt Echanis Wind power project, but the project status is also on hold.

“We are still in legal limbo,” said Chris Crowley, president of Vancouver, Wash.-based Columbia Energy Partners.

The project would have 40 to 60 turbines and provide enough power for about 30,000 homes, according to the company.

The Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Audubon Society of Portland challenged the project — particularly the Bureau of Land Management granting right of way to a power transmission line for the project across public land — in federal court in April 2012.

The groups are opposed to the project because of its proximity to the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, said ONDA executive director Brent Fenty. He said the turbines would have a harmful impact on wildlife, particularly greater sage grouse and golden eagles.

ONDA does support some wind projects, he said, if they are in a better location.

Fenty said the Echanis project is the “right idea, wrong place.”

Federal District Judge Michael Mosman ruled in favor of the BLM and the company last September. ONDA and the Audubon Society of Portland appealed the case in November to the Ninth Circuit Court.

—Reporter: 541-617-7812; ddarling@bendbulletin.com.