Chris Crowley (with companion Pongi) makes a stand for wind energy projects in Eastern Oregon.
BY OAKLEY BROOKS // PHOTOS BY GARY OGILVIE
It’s a sparkling, bluebird, big-mountain, mid-summer day as Chris Crowley passes Hood and the Cascades line en route to eastern Oregon, but Crowley is getting prickly. He’s the principal at Columbia Energy Partners and pressing forward with three wind farms worth between $200 and $300 million each around the blustery Steens Mountain area in the state’s southeast corner. They could catch the winter wind to complement summer breezes already spinning turbines in the Columbia River Gorge, and the new resources could inch us ever closer to a clean-energy future.
But environmental groups are having none of it. Led by the Oregon Natural Desert Association and the Audubon Society of Portland, they have been throwing nearly everything they’ve got to stop turbines near the iconic wilderness area, twice petitioning the state to stop or bring tighter scrutiny to the projects. The petitions were denied, but activists are unbowed. Crowley is now hearing over the phone that they’re delaying negotiations with his lawyer and second-guessing Crowley’s need for new electricity lines in the area. “They don’t understand our business!” he says into the phone, before hanging up in a huff. “I came out of movement politics,” he adds. “I know that delay means victory.”
If the latter is true, Crowley is losing. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow. The 55-year-old Crowley (pronounced CROW-ly) got into wind development 10 years ago because he saw a golden opportunity to unite Oregon. A veteran Democratic activist and public affairs consultant who worked for unions and tried to bring light rail to his hometown of Vancouver, Wash., he had plenty of tree-hugging friends around the Portland area clamoring for green power in the hopes it would slow global warming. And he also knew that the infant wind industry was beginning to throw off revenues to struggling ranchers, farmers and cash-strapped rural counties. “I’ve been in the Northwest for 20 years,” says Crowley, who grew up in the Northeast and moved to Vancouver in 1993. “I followed the fish wars and the culture wars and the cow wars and the water wars, and wind seemed like a political winner.”
But if wind enjoyed some heady early days — homeowners willing to pay extra for green electricity from utilities, wheat farmers welcoming new wind turbines onto their land and lawmakers renewing plush tax credits for energy projects — it’s now growing increasingly complicated. Environmental groups are voicing greater concerns about wildlife impacts from wind farms and residents are pushing back forcefully, worried about views and maladies from the constantly spinning pinwheels in their backyards. In northeast Oregon, where citizens claim that a 182-turbine project within view of downtown Union will wreck the pristine vistas and local tourism industry in their sleepy, ridge-encircled valley, a retired Forest Service worker quipped to the Oregonian, “This reminds me of the old timber wars of the 1970s.”
The difference now is that environmental and community groups are digging in against their former political bed-fellows-cum-developers. It’s not just happening in Oregon: in California’s Mojave Desert, a recently proposed national monument backed by desert advocates has scuttled plans for a huge solar installation, among other clean energy projects.
Wildland groups here are collapsing Crowley’s big tent as a matter of strategy.
“Chris likes to talk about how he worked for [Michael] Dukakis and others,” says Brent Fenty, the director of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), “but that doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to do something that’s not in the public’s interest.”
That has Crowley not merely filibustered, but feeling betrayed. As he heads to Harney County on his mid-summer trip, the blown-out Deepwater Horizon rig is still gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. All around him are signs of wind power’s compelling cachet — on the cover of notebooks, teabags, even the Shell gas station in Madras where he stops to fill up advertises itself as “100% wind powered.”
Crowley is here to lift fossil fuel’s yoke. He has visions of shutting down the coal-fired power plant in Boardman, which is polluting the Gorge but which the Northwest still needs in the winter when electricity demand is high. He’s that green-tinted businessman that Oregon has worked so hard to cultivate. “We’re offshoring the consequences of our energy choices and we all bear some of the responsibility,” he says. “I can look my kids in the eye in the morning and say what I’m doing really matters.”
But, right now, that’s not enough to get his projects in the ground.
In some ways, Crowley and Columbia Energy Partners are victims of wind power’s success. Federal tax credits have helped make wind cost competitive with heavily subsidized coal and natural gas electricity generation. With Oregon utilities compelled to get 25% of their electricity from clean energy by 2025, and our voracious neighbor to the south under even more aggressive requirements (33% by 2020), the demand for wind is insatiable. The east end of the Gorge has become saturated with farms and new proposals: there are now 1,920 megawatts of power generated at 22 projects throughout the eastern Gorge counties and one in Union County. That’s roughly equal to the output of the nuclear plant in Hanford, Wash., or three Columbia River dams. Another 4,571 megawatts are proposed or coming online soon, overwhelmingly in the Gorge.
But developers have also begun to look farther afield for project sites, to balance out the peak summer wind season in the Gorge. Southeastern Oregon happens to be a gold mine for winter wind. Steens Mountain is an old-fault block that rises quickly from the high desert floor to 9,733 feet; its main ridgelines fan out to the north like an airplane wing, channeling storms from the west in the winter months. Last January, Columbia Energy Partners clocked 41 mph winds at one of the nine meteorological towers it has placed north of the mountain. The company figures that wind would average 18 to 20 mph through winter at its three active projects in the area; one has been approved by Harney County and would sell its power to Southern California Edison, and two others are still in the works. Columbia Energy is also looking at a fourth site on state land in the area. The ventures are backed by Germany’s HSH Nordbank.
Meanwhile, Texas-based Horizon Wind is testing sites further south, near the town of Fields.
But southeast Oregon is also a prime habitat for the greater sage grouse, a ground nesting bird that flaunts its feathers like a peacock and is in serious decline. Wildlife managers in Oregon recommend that wind developers give a buffer of three miles around sage grouse courtship zones, known as leks. That buffer recommendation could increase to four or five miles later this year. Already, there is a lek within three miles for one of Columbia Energy’s proposed turbine rows north of the Steens.
Sage grouse restrictions would add to wind’s growing pains in Oregon. Reductions in the state’s business energy tax credits and new viewshed restrictions sure to appear in the Legislature next session could make developers think twice about the state.
“Opposition and the inconsistency we’re facing from state government is forcing us to look at developing in other states that a few years ago weren’t on the same level as Oregon,” says Arlo Corwin, the director of Northwest project development for Horizon. “It would be unfortunate for a state that was so far ahead of the curve to lose its competitive advantage.”