An ugly battle over clean power

By Warren Cornwall
Seattle Times environment reporter

ELLENSBURG — The wind blows so hard over these desert ridges that it topples outhouses. It whistles through the high steel towers strung with cables that carry electricity west to light the cities of Puget Sound.

The hills west of Ellensburg, then, would seem an ideal spot for giant wind turbines to help quench the Northwest’s thirst for clean, home-grown energy.

Instead, they have become a battleground as Kittitas County officials and some locals square off against environmentalists and wind-power companies over putting towering generators near rural homes that dot these hills and valleys.

Now the five-year-old debate has reached all the way to the governor’s office, elevating this beyond a classic not-in-my-backyard tale in a sparsely populated county. The outcome of this fight could set a precedent for future fights over wind power in the state as demand continues to mount.

“There are going to be sites that aren’t out in the middle of wheat fields anymore,” said Dana Peck of Horizon Wind Energy of Houston, one of two companies seeking to build dozens of the turbines here.

“It wouldn’t be allowed in King County,” counters Rick Forster, a Redmond man who owns a vacation cabin nearby. “But they just figure in this little county over there it doesn’t matter.”

New popularity

If Horizon gets its way, its Kittitas Valley Wind Power project will erect 65 wind turbines with poles the size of old-growth firs and propeller blades up to 145 feet long. They would line ridges on either side of Highway 97 outside of Ellensburg.

Another company, California-based enXco, wants to build an additional 90 in the same area under the name Desert Claim Wind Power. All told, they could produce enough power to light roughly 100,000 homes.

Wind turbines have become popular in the Northwest lately, thanks to the current worry about global warming and to recent government subsidies and mandates.

Last year, Washington voters passed a law requiring major utilities in the state to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, and big dams don’t count. Much of it is expected to come from wind power. California and Oregon have even more aggressive targets.

There are 42 wind-power projects in the works in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, more than double the number already running, according to the Renewable Northwest Project, an alliance of energy companies and environmental groups.

Kittitas County already has 127 massive wind turbines. The Wild Horse project, on the flanks of Whisky Dick Mountain east of town, is visible from Ellensburg. But there are hardly any homes near it, so it’s been warmly received by locals.

Not so for the Horizon and enXco proposals.

Last Friday, Gov. Christine Gregoire sidestepped a final decision on allowing the Horizon project. Instead, she asked a state agency, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC), to look for a way to build the turbines farther from homes while keeping the project economically viable.

It’s unlikely to end the feud.

“This is not the place”

Sandy Sandall can’t see how to make dozens of 410-foot-tall wind turbines palatable, even if they’re a mile or more from his back deck.

The retired Boeing mechanic moved into a log home on a forested ridge in 1997. He had discovered the spot while elk hunting, and was charmed by the quiet and the view.

Now it looks down on the proposed Horizon wind farm.

Sandall says he doesn’t oppose wind power. He gets his electricity from solar panels and from his own relatively tiny wind turbine mounted on a 50-foot pole.

But rows of white massive white poles, topped with blinking lights and propeller blades that make a “whoosh” audible from several hundred yards away — that’s another thing.

Sandall remains unconvinced by assurances that the sound won’t be noticeable from farther off, and that it won’t hurt property values.

“I’m 72 years old. I came out here to be alone,” said Sandall, who is part of a citizen group, Residents Opposed to Kittitas Turbines. “I have no objection to alternative energy. This is just not the place.”

With such concerns from the neighbors, the three-member Kittitas County Commission rejected the enXco plan in 2005 and Horizon’s in 2006.

There are signs of displeasure elsewhere in the region.

Last month in Columbia County, where several wind projects have already been built, a group of landowners challenged yet another project. In Oregon, a proposal for turbines near the Columbia River Gorge prompted a call in May for a moratorium on all new wind farms in the state while officials sort out how to regulate them.

But not everyone in Kittitas County is against the turbines.

Mike Genson, a retired local schoolteacher, owns 420 acres below Sandall’s house. He’s agreed to let Horizon build seven turbines on the land.

Genson, 67, said he was skeptical when the company first approached him. But he visited another wind-power project near Walla Walla and didn’t mind the way it looked or sounded.

Besides, Genson said, he likes the idea of providing clean power. And the income — possibly $30,000 a year or more — could allow him to keep the property, where he lives part time.

“If we don’t get the wind farm, we’re going to be forced into gradually letting this go to development,” he said.

The governor’s dilemma

In the meantime, the fight has produced some unusual alliances.

Both environmentalists and business groups, including Kittitas Valley’s economic-development organization, are backing Horizon’s bid.

They urged the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to reject the county commission’s denial of the project.

“The fact that someone doesn’t like the looks of a wind turbine, I have some sympathy for them,” said Sara Patton, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, a Seattle group. “But that’s just not as important as dealing with the climate and our air.”

EFSEC voted to let the Horizon project go ahead. Now, enXco plans to ask for a similar ruling.

Though Gregoire has asked EFSEC to do more work on its Horizon recommendation, the final decision rests with her.

Kittitas County officials have been urging her to reject the EFSEC ruling. Darryl Piercy, head of the county’s Community Development Services department, said it’s a test of whether local development decisions will be honored by the state.

“This is troubling to think that that local process can easily be ignored,” he said.

But Friday, Gregoire simply said that she was trying to weigh the concerns of local officials against the region’s need for more clean power.

“I am very mindful of the cumulative impact of wind power projects in Kittitas County and will continue to evaluate this issue,” she wrote.


Solar power costs dropping, nearing competition

By Rebekah Kebede

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Solar energy is fast closing the price gap with conventional U.S. power sources and is likely to drop to near even in cost in many regions in the next few years, industry sources said this week.

Price declines for the clean energy have been driven by the ramp up in production of solar cells and panels and advances in technology that have increased the cells’ efficiency.

Under current laws that expire in 2008, installation of solar power systems are subsidized by a 30 percent investment tax credit that helps narrow the gap between the cost of 20 to 40 cents per kwh and typical U.S. retail electricity costs of about 10.5 cents per kwh.

Congress is debating a possible extension and expansion of current solar subsidies as part of a broader energy legislation package.

But much of solar’s viability hinges on whether the systems can feed power directly into the grid systems used by utilities, Michael Ahern, CEO of solar module manufacturer First Solar Inc., told Reuters Wednesday at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum.

Currently, utilities can buy power from low-cost coal-fired plants for around 4 cents per kilowatt, and sell the power to households and business at about 12 cents per kwh, although prices can be much higher during peak usage hours, said Ahearn.

However, in a supply-constrained market such as California, Ahearn said, power prices ranged from 12 to 23 cents per kwh, making solar nearly competitive.

First Solar hopes to offer retail energy buyers competitive power prices of 8 to 11 cents per kwh as early as 2010, Ahearn said.

“If we can hit 8 to 10 cents, I think we’re going to open some markets,” he said.

With power prices climbing and the cost of solar power falling, the outlook for solar energy is bright, said Alf Bjorseth, CEO of Swedish company Scatec.

In some markets, solar energy is already a cost effective source of power, Bjorseth said, and that trend is set to expand, especially in larger markets.

New technologies such as thin film solar modules and the use of nanotechnology will further boost solar energy affordability, according to company executives at the conference.

Tempering that optimism, however, were several challenges to the industry, including a shortage of the silicon that is used to make solar modules, which has hampered industry growth, said Bjorseth.

The regulatory environment may also prove to be an obstacle to solar power, according to Ahearn.

Investing in new solar installations also remained risky because no clear regulatory framework existed to compare how renewables would fare economically over the long-term against more conventional sources, even with federal subsidies, Ahearn said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Daily)

Investors put more toward renewable energy

By Caroline Humer

NEW YORK, (Reuters) – With renewable energy sources such as wind and solar becoming more common on Main Street and Wall Street, investors who have focused on old-world oil and gas companies and power producers are putting investment dollars into these new companies.

Private equity fund First Reserve and General Electric’s(GE.N: Quote, Profile, Research) Energy Financial Services are two large energy investors who plan to put more money toward alternative energy sources during the next few years, executives at both firms said.

First Reserve plans to put 10 percent to 15 percent of its newest $7.8 billion private equity fund toward renewable energy, or $780 million to $1.17 billion, while GE has plans to double its spending in the area to $4 billion by 2010.

“Many of the renewables are now at the intersection of Main and Wall Streets. There is a significant Main Street appetite for renewables, and there is starting to be a size and order of magnitude that get the attention of folks such as us,” said First Reserve director Glenn Payne.

Areas that are interesting include harvesting methane from landfills and coal mines and combusting it for energy as well as greenhouse gases, which has created a market for trading credits, Payne said.

Part of the difficulty is finding investments that are large enough to be worthwhile for a fund the size of First Reserve’s, he said. Biofuel deals, particularly ethanol, and some biodiesel deals fit into this category as do wind deals, he said.

Among purchases First Reserve has made so far are a 50 percent stake in Blue Source, a U.S.-based aggregator of greenhouse gas emission reduction offsets. It also has acquired a landfill waste company called Industrial Power Generating Corp., or Ingenco.

GE Energy Financial Services is also looking at wind energy, solar and investments around biomass, which involves recovering gases from waste such as wood chips and landfills, according to Jim Burgoyne, managing director at GE Energy Financial Services.

One area that the group is looking at is offshore wind generation, he said. That has come as some developers have begun to question if construction, particularly in parts of Europe, has reached a saturation point. The unit already has a deal with French wind company Theolia (TEO.PA: Quote, Profile, Research) in which it took a stake in the company and combined wind assets.

It has also invested in solar energy, he said, pointing to the construction of a solar power plant with a SunPower Corp. (SPWR.O: Quote, Profile, Research) unit PowerLight and Catavento SA in Serpa, Portugal.

Competition for the renewable assets that are out there has picked up, which has affected returns in some aspects, said Burgoyne, but investment in the sector has also created new opportunities

“There are more people flooding into the space, both from a development standpoint and a capital standpoint,” he said. But, he said, many of the investors had come on board earlier this decade in the wake of the collapse of credit in the power industry.

Those investors who were interested in distressed asset have since stayed in the sector and as the renewable energy space has grown, have stepped into it along with everybody else, he said.

Gore raps media, ignores rumors he’ll run

By David Postman
The Seattle Times

Former Vice President Al Gore told a Seattle audience Monday night there is a crisis in America’s “information ecosystem” that has the news media more interested in celebrity wrongdoing than phony justification for war.

Gore told about a thousand people at Town Hall that the breakdown in communication — what the book he’s promoting calls “The Assault on Reason” — has led to the climate crisis and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which he called the “worst strategic mistake in the history of our nation.”

Gore didn’t speak of a possible 2008 presidential campaign. His talk was more lecture than speech. Gore recounted the history of the verbal, written and printed language. He paced the stage and talked about the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Gandhi and Einstein — all delivered to a crowd that sat surprisingly quiet.

He said the climate crisis and the invasion of Iraq are similar in that the “abundant best evidence” at the time should have been more than enough to persuade people to do just the opposite of what happened.

“When reason is assigned a lower priority, when reason is taken out of the center of the democratic conversation, it leaves a vacuum,” Gore said. “And what fills that vacuum is ideology of one off-brand or another: extreme partisanship, fundamentalism, extreme nationalism; in the worst cases, racism and ethnic ferocity.”

Gore said America suffers from “shared illusions.”

In a near whisper, he said, “Candidates gather on a stage, and express their support for torture and the audience applauds and then another candidate is even more enthusiastic in favor of torture and the audience applauds even more enthusiastically.”

Gore heaped much blame on the news media. He said entertainment news and fluff on TV are “now crowding out the space that we need to govern ourselves.”

The effort to repeal the federal estate tax — a campaign for which Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen has been a leading national voice — was a prime example for Gore of what he said are the country’s wrong-headed priorities.

Gore suggested people balance that against health care for all Americans.

“Which of these is more significant to the fate of our republic?” Gore asked. “Which has received the most air time and the most political attention and the most political speech and fervor and the passion of its advocates on the floor of the Congress? The estate tax.” He said advocates refer to the tax as the death tax because “a brand is essential.”

Gore sees hope in the Internet. But he said freedom of the Web is threatened and people should worry about protecting Internet freedom just as the country’s founders worried about freedom of the press.

Monday night’s event sold out in minutes, reflecting the surge in Gore’s popularity after his documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” won an Academy Award and cemented his place as a leading environmental champion.

Outside Town Hall, several people circulated petitions to draft Gore into the race. He made no mention of the presidential campaign.

Gore’s reluctance to say he won’t run — as opposed to his stock answer that he’s not running — has created a phenomenon among Democratic voters of settling now on a starter candidate who would be left behind if Gore, the trophy candidate, enters the race.

“I, personally, have one foot in the Obama camp,” said Dean Falvy, a Seattle attorney who was working the line outside Town Hall with “draft Gore” petitions.

Congressman Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, an early and ardent backer of Sen. Barack Obama, said he thinks it’s a myth that there are a lot of Democrats waiting to see if Gore will run.

“Democrats are satisfied with the field,” Smith said, citing polls that show 85 percent of Democrats say they are happy with the current crop.

Smith isn’t worried about the Gore effect. “First of all, Al Gore is not going to run for president,” he says.

But there are some well-connected Democrats who want to make sure. Smith said Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, a close friend of Gore’s, won’t commit to a candidate until Gore says something definitive.

Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, wants Gore to run and thinks he may still get in the race. McDermott believes that, in part, because “it’s the nature of politicians.”