A 10,000-acre ranch that stretches into both Crook and Deschutes counties could be the site for Central Oregon’s first commercial wind farm.
Surrounded by junipers and shrubs, 34 to 52 wind turbines approximately 400 to 574 feet tall would occupy about 20 acres of the ranch, perched on top of West Butte, in the southern section of Crook County. Coined the West Butte Wind Power Project, the estimated $220 million project could generate enough electricity to power about 50,000 homes. But some environmental and wildlife groups point out it could also further threaten sage grouse and harm other animals.
“Our point of view is we want to support renewable energy products. But just because it’s renewable energy doesn’t mean there aren’t impacts,” said Brent Fenty, executive director of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.
The company submitted its application in December, and officials from the Crook County Planning Department deemed it complete this past week. A public hearing on the proposal will likely be held in February.
Wayne Singhose owns the ranch that West Butte Wind Power, which is a partnership of Pacific Wind Power and R-Squared Energy, hopes to rent.
Singhose said he agreed to the deal because he believes it will help the local economy.
“The biggest thing is the revenue the county would get from this project. And without timber money … ,” Singhose said. “This would help because resorts aren’t really producing very fast.”
Sarah Rankin, with Pacific Wind Power, said she estimates the county would receive about $1 million annually in property taxes.
The 104-megawatt project would have turbines at 5,000 to 5,800 feet on the ridges surrounding West Butte.
Although officials from Deschutes and Jefferson counties said they have yet to receive an application for a commercial wind farm, the idea is becoming increasingly popular in Oregon, said Lou Torres, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Energy.
“I can tell you right now we have about 1,000 megawatts of electricity provided by large wind farms, mainly in the Columbia Gorge,” Torres said. “We also have about 1,000 megawatts of wind electricity that is under construction and another 1,000 megawatts of applications that are starting to come in and pending. … We could triple the amount of megawatts in the next few years.”
In Harney County, two projects called the East Ridge and West Ridge wind farms, that could have between 40 and 69 wind turbines were given a preliminary thumbs-up by the county in November. But in that area, like with the Crook County project, there is a concern for the sage grouse.
Officials are considering listing sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act, and a nearby sage grouse lek, where the birds strut during mating season, is considered irreplaceable habitat by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials.
Amy Stuart, with ODFW, said that officials have learned through gas and oil exploration studies that developing near a sage grouse lek eventually decreases the bird’s productivity. Large game, such as mule deer and elk, also roam in the area where the proposed Crook County wind turbine site is slated, Stuart said.
But John Stahl, with West Butte Wind Power, who is in charge of the project, said he spent more than a year studying the potential biological impacts the project could have on the area.
“We’re proposing a lot of mitigation for sage grouse,” Stahl said. “We’re cutting down juniper, which is good for sage grouse. … There are a lot of ways to make them happier and more of them will be there after we’re done.”
Although the majority of the property is on private land, project officials are requesting to use a road on Bureau of Land Management land, which could make the issue of sage grouse more prevalent.
Doug Vandergon, a realty specialist with BLM, said officials at BLM recently received the proposal and are in the preliminary stages of analyzing the application, but he did predict possible wildlife mitigation.
“Sage grouse are a wildlife resource that could potentially affect or modify the application,” he said.
Since the project will generate fewer than 105 megawatts of power, it only requires permission from the county. Projects that generate more than 105 megawatts require permission from the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council, according to Torres.
Heidi Bauer, with the Crook County Planning Department, said there is no set process on how many public hearings will be held on the project, but she estimates there will likely be more than one.