An electrician enlarged his shop. A fencing contractor is so busy he’s had to stop advertising. A former drywaller loves his new job stringing electrical cable up 200-foot ladders.
In rural Klickitat County, wind farm construction is driving new employment in a place that’s struggled for years after high-paying jobs in timber and aluminum dried up.
It’s not a wide-open boom, but it’s definitely helping, said Jim Allyn, owner of Allyn’s Building Supply, which recently saw a 20 percent spike in sales and was able to take on an extra worker.
The prevailing mentality: The wind blows anyway, it might as well blow money.
“There’s more than wind surfing on this stuff,” said Mike Canon, economic development director for Klickitat County.
No one knows exactly how many temporary construction jobs have been created, but if current plans are borne out, the wind farms will ultimately start an estimated 535 permanent jobs and generate nearly $15 million in annual property taxes.
The county is becoming the Northwest’s wind farm capital with 14 projects either built, under construction or in the planning process. Five are producing some level of electricity so far.
If all of them are built, they will have the capacity to produce 2,661 megawatts, enough to power potentially more than 1 million homes.
Windy Point and Windy Flats are the latest, and largest wind farms. Together, they will be one of the largest wind projects in the United States, according to developer Cannon Power Group of San Diego.
When complete next year, the wind farms will stretch across 26 continuous miles of ridgeline above the north shore of the Columbia River and have a capacity to generate 500 megawatts of electricity, enough for up to 250,000 homes.
The tips of the turbine blades soar 415 feet off the ground, creating an imposing view from the wheat farms and cattle ranches dotting the hills surrounding Goldendale, with a population of 3,715.
The company plans to sell some of that power to California and has signed letters-of-intent to do so.
But while the power heads south, the jobs are here and that’s a relief to a county with chronically high unemployment, 12.3 percent last month.
Construction work is done through a myriad of subcontractors, making exact employment statistics and wage information elusive, said Brandy Myers, the project administrator.
However, more than 150 workers are now building the two Cannon wind farms. Jobs range from clerical work to road and site excavation to wood framing to wiring. As many as half of the workers are from Klickitat County.
Some of the work is contracted to Goldendale firms, but the out-of-town companies also hire local workers, said Lucky Hoffman, director of engineering and construction for Cannon.
For example, Herling Construction Inc. of Cherry Valley, Calif., with a contract to build 20 miles of roads, has about 50 employees. About 75 percent are from Klickitat County, said Ron Goldade, a foreman.
Goldade, 58, has lived in Goldendale for 25 years. Once a production supervisor at nearby aluminum plants, he lost his job when the plants shut down in 2000.
“You take what skills you learned and you try to build the mousetrap all over again,” he said.
A short excavation stint at a nearby gas-fired power plant led him to Herling, a company that took him to projects all over the West before working on the wind farms near Goldendale. He previously helped the company with road construction on the White Creek Wind Farm, further east in the county near Bickleton.
The local contractors have picked up work, too. Pat Williams of Williams Electric was hired to wire the office and maintenance buildings at both Cannon sites. His staff rose to six employees for a time last year, while he added onto his shop in town and purchased a new bucket truck from a Goldendale dealership.
Cody Slater, owner of CRS Construction and Fencing, has been turning away work for six years since wind farms arrived in the area. Hired to erect fencing and install cattle guards at the Cannon wind farms, Slater has purchased $180,000 of new equipment, including a $73,000 excavator from The Dalles, Ore., about 35 miles away.
“For once, we’ve never had to hunt for work,” Slater says.
The con-struction causes a ripple effect in the area.
Some of the work requires specialists from Utah, Wyoming, Florida and Michigan, filling up the town’s three motels. Restaurants are busy.
Last year, Allyn’s Building Supply saw its highest sales ever.
However, its owner warns that it’s not a boom.
“Goldendale is never a boom or bust town,” Allyn said. “We just kind of rock along. We’ve always had high unemployment.”
Not everyone has shared in the prosperity.
Out-of-work trucker Christopher Hunt hasn’t found work at the wind farms and still drives a 1981 Datsun with sun visors falling off in his lap. He stays partially because he loves the 5-acre view property he purchased for $10,000 in the 1990s.
“You don’t come here because you want a good job, you come because it’s a nice area,” Hunt said.
Building wind farms takes a couple years. Running them, however, is expected to last at least 20 years.
That can mean local jobs, too.
Canon, the county’s economic development director, said wind farms create an average of one permanent job for every five megawatts. So far, the farms have brought 154 permanent positions, mostly technicians. Those jobs pay from $50,000 to $60,000 per year.
In The Dalles, Columbia Gorge Community College has launched one-year and two-year training programs in wind technology. And there’s talk about bringing a similar program to Yakima. There’s a plan to start surveying the labor needs of wind farm companies sometime next month, said David Gonzales, manager of the South Central Workforce Council.
Canon, no relation to the company, considers wind farms a savior from the decline of the timber and aluminum industries that propped up the area until about a decade ago.
“They lost the timber industry and the aluminum, all within a very short time,” Canon said. “That’s what this county is pulling itself out of with these wind farms.”
Even the project administrator for Windy Point and Windy Flats hopes to keep working in Goldendale after the wind farms are complete.
For at least one person, the wind farms have allowed a return home.
A native of Goldendale, Brandy Myers, 30, had been working at Hanford in a job that took her all over the country.
Now back in Golden-dale, she handles permits, contracts and other details for the wind farms. Her husband, Lonnie, works for an electrical contractor wiring the wind turbines.
The fourth-generation rancher grew up along rural Hoctor Road south of Goldendale. She and Lonnie now live in her own home along the street with their 8-month-old son, Rydell.
The turbines dominate their view to the south, providing a daily reminder of her “chance to move back.”
Yakima Herald-Republic – http://www.tri-cityherald.com/1154/story/518209.html