John Audley, deputy director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on growing renewable energy generation, sees possibilities, however, for renewable energy to be a positive force on the landscape. While conservation dollars are short, he says the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife could use funds from renewable energy mitigation to underwrite conservation efforts. “I’m not arguing for bad decisions in the interest of renewable energy investments, but if true partnerships exists,” he says, then those opportunities should be forged.
West Butte is one example, with Pacific Wind Power providing $1.3 million for restoration and enhancement of 9,000 acres of sage grouse habitat and conservation easements. Through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the company will also spend $40,000 a year for the life of the project, 20 to 25 years, to spread cages on power poles to prevent electrocution of eagles.
Criticism that wind development in these areas could ultimately resemble extraction industries like oil and gas hit hard among developers. Pacific Wind Power’s Stahl, the West Butte developer, is among them. Having shifted careers to wind development after 14 years focused on problems posed by oil tankers and liquefied natural gas in Santa Barbara County, he is particularly galled at the suggestion.
“I don’t understand how it would be extraction of the land, we’re not depleting anything,” he says. He notes that wind has a much smaller footprint than solar, and that in a state like Oregon, where approximately 53% of the land is publicly owned, “It ought to be used for something instead of just cattle grazing.”
That wildlife issues are most prevalent in the same rural communities hardest hit by economic downturn hasn’t been lost in the discussions. Though BLM maintains no national statistics on how many jobs wind projects create, it’s also clear wind farms bring work to areas most in need of economic boost. The West Butte Wind Power project is expected to generate 70 jobs during construction and another 345 to provide supplies, materials, support and offsite services to construction workers. The American Wind Energy Association pegs long-term jobs in wind at 21 jobs per 100 megawatts.
As developers consider public lands, some, including Roby Roberts, vice president of communications and government affairs at EDP Renewables, say the process is still too complicated for good business. Even amid signals of support from the highest levels of government, Roberts says resources in local BLM agencies are slim, and that the Department of Interior hasn’t kept federal agencies organized in moving development forward. “We wish they were more coordinated, we wish they were more collaborative. And this process has not been as smooth as we would like,” he says.
Randy Joseph, the owner of Lime Wind, says seeing that project through meant navigating a confusing federal bureaucracy. “There is no one person to make a decision. There’s nobody to go to and get a definitive answer. Sometimes that is frustrating,” he says. Oregon Community Wind’s Big Valley Wind Project east of Lakeview stalled out for eight months when the nearby Ruby Pipeline riled tribes, squeezing resources at the small business. “We don’t have 30 projects out there that are constantly churning. It really affects us,” says CEO Kirk Slack.
Still, Audley says, “I don’t think we can walk away,” even if wind developers continue to emphasize private land while obstacles remain.
“If you want to call [the Columbia Plateau] low-hanging fruit, it’s been picked,” he says. “That means we venture from places where the choices were easy and clearer to areas where there are conflicts, and we need the kind of values to muscle through difficult situations.”
He believes renewable energy development on public lands is a critical part of the nation’s
Yet as long as wind developers are a small part of the energy picture, they will continue to compete for staff attention and predictable policy at BLM. Though the agency anticipates national wind leases to account for $2.9 million by 2016, it’s a paltry sum, and a demonstrably small part of the energy business at BLM, where right-of-way rentals for oil and gas pipelines, leases, bonuses and royalties across the country totaled $13.7 million in 2010. Competitive oil and gas lease sales show comparably monstrous returns: the 25 sales held so far in 2011 netted $193 million.
Such slow traction on renewables has allowed time for talks in Oregon about where and how wind can make the most of its potential in the state. Which resources are best set aside for traditional uses, both by ranchers and by wildlife, particularly sage grouse, likely will be a continued — and heated — debate for many more years.
Lee Van der Voo is a Portland journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other noted publications. Her last story for Oregon Business was on the stalled wave energy industry. She can be reached at editor(at)oregonbusiness.com?subject=Re:%20Lee%20Van%20der%20Voo" style="font-style: italic;">editor(at)oregonbusiness.com.