By Sandra DeMent
For The Sentinel 

Klickitat County now fourth in country for wind energy


March 18, 2020

Steadily, over the last 25 years, a major new industry has taken root in Klickitat County. It was the creation of no one person or company; in fact it spans at least four very different technologies. This new industry, one based on export, has grown to exceed the combined revenue from Klickitat County’s traditional ranch, timber, and agricultural sectors. The industry? Energy.

Hydroelectric power is so familiar to us that we don’t think of it as innovative. But in 1932, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised the U.S. government would build its next major dam projects in Washington state, it was hard to imagine the long time frames and deep roots that Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) would invest in the state of Washington and Klickitat County. Hundreds of Klickitat County landowners today have easements across their lands, granted for power transmission lines and maintenance roads. In 1940, a two-acre easement for a BPA maintenance road cost $50, or $920 today. The BPA transmission lines laid the groundwork for Klickitat County’s energy industry 25 years later.

In the 1990s, the Klickitat Public Utility District (KPUD) began shifting its attention from the construction of rural power lines to exploring other sources of power for its customers besides BPA. By 1997, KPUD had partnered with Wasco County to build a hydroelectric turbine alongside a fish ladder at the John Day Dam and began to generate 10 megawatts of new power, split with Wasco County. As of last year, KPUD paid off the debt on that project. Those 5 megawatts of electricity are now the cheapest source of power keeping the lights on in the county.

After hydroelectric, the next national energy focus was triggered by the oil embargo of the 1970s. Remember President Jimmy Carter appearing on national television wearing a cardigan sweater and urging us all to turn our thermostats down to 68 degrees? Within months, Carter created the Department of Energy and several national programs focused on boosting domestic energy production, including wind and solar. By 1980 the federal government was creating “wind maps” nationwide, to help focus development efforts.

Klickitat County drew developers’ attention because it possessed not only steady wind but also proximity to existing transmission lines, thanks to the BPA. Beginning around 2000, work was underway in Klickitat County to create an Energy Overlay Zone (EOZ), to modernize the regulatory process under which energy projects—primarily wind and solar—were reviewed by the county and affected citizens, and permits granted. The work was overseen by Curt Dreyer, then Director of the Klickitat County Planning Department, and Dana Peck, then Director of the Klickitat County Economic Development Authority. The EOZ was finally approved in 2005 by County Commissioners Don Struck, Joan Frey, and Ray Thayer.

The county’s adoption of the wind and solar EOZ was followed by an explosion of wind turbine construction, including the White Creek Wind project, jointly owned by three utilities and KPUD. In the five year period since the EOZ was adopted, hundreds of wind turbines, each rising 400 feet and carrying three 150 foot long blades, were added to the scenery adjacent to the Gorge.

Today, Klickitat County is the fourth largest producer of wind energy in the nation, just after Gilliam County in Oregon and two counties in California and Texas. There are 1,248 wind turbines dotting the landscape east of Dallesport, and together they can generate up to 2500 megawatts of power, almost all of which is exported to California.

There are local benefits: for example, roughly 20 percent of the budget for Maryhill Museum, or $250,000, is funded through wind turbines. Ranchers east of Goldendale can collect annual lease payments of $8,000 to $15,000 per turbine, depending on how strongly and how steadily the wind blows. Each turbine requires up to two acres of land around it, so it doesn’t interfere with the wind flow to the next turbine.

Next came the development of the Roosevelt Regional Landfill, with its specialized design that allowed the capture of methane gas and its conversion to natural gas. As part of the deal with Republic Services (then Rabanco), Klickitat County retained the rights to the gas, and turned it over to KPUD, which built a small plant that turned the natural gas into electricity. By 1999, Roosevelt was producing 10 megawatts of new electricity from the Roosevelt plant. KPUD expanded the Roosevelt project in 2011, adding another 26 megawatts of generating capacity. The power was sold, mostly to California utilities.

As most KPUD customers know only too well, a drastic and unexpected drop in the Market price of natural gas left KPUD without enough revenues to cover both its operating costs and the debt on the expanded generating plant it built. Ratepayers have been paying down the debt ever since. The electricity-generating plant was mothballed; today the most recent build-out at Roosevelt uses the same methane to produce renewable natural gas which is exported through the nearby Williams Northwest Pipeline. (This time, KPUD’s deal with BP Energy gives priority to paying off the debt.)

Soon after the boom in wind turbines was underway, Calpine, a California utility, built a plant in Goldendale in 2004 to generate 250 megawatts of electricity primarily from natural gas delivered by the Williams Northwest Pipeline that crosses Klickitat County. Within a few years the plant was taken over by Puget Sound Energy, which exports almost all of this power to the Seattle area.

This year, in the Lund Hill area of the county south and east of Bickleton, Puget Sound Energy and Avangrid, a subsidiary of a Spanish energy company, will soon complete the largest solar energy project in Washington. The solar farm adds another 150 megawatts of power generated in Klickitat County, to be exported to a consortium of cities, towns and utilities in Washington.

Finally, a new project recently received federal funding to explore a “retro” hydroelectric power plant able to provide power when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. The pump storage plant will use electricity when it is cheap and abundant to pump water 2,400 feet up to the top of a cliff along the Columbia, holding it until wind and solar generators can’t meet demand. Then, it will release the water down three tubes containing turbines that can generate up to 1,200 megawatts of power for up to 12 hours. For Klickitat County, it means $14 million in tax revenue plus 30 permanent jobs.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the flow of dollars the new energy industry generates.


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