Wind energy developer runs into a green wall

1010_Windman01Wind energy developer Chris Crowley was the darling of the green set until he tried to put turbines near Steens Mountain.

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Chris Crowley
Chris Crowley (with companion Pongi) makes a stand for wind energy projects in Eastern Oregon.

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.”



Wind farms are welcomed by some rural residents and under fire by environmentalists. (These turbines near Rufus were photographed with an infrared camera.)

Chris Crowley, however, is not going anywhere. He’s already braved one harrowing moment early in Columbia Energy Partners’ life, not two years after he left a grassroots music startup called (“That’s what I should have named my wind company,” he says.) A few days before Christmas 2001, his first wind project near the town of Arlington, dependent on loans personally guaranteed by Crowley, suddenly lost its power purchaser, Pacific Power. He and his wife and two kids sat around the kitchen table and wept, before Crowley, who then as now operates with a small team and a large consulting Rolodex, went back out and sold the project to Horizon.

These days, Crowley dons his trusty company baseball cap and rallies ruralites in Harney County. They’re drawn to his juicy promise of hundreds of millions in investment, 150 construction jobs during each of the projects, and around 10 permanent posts at each farm. This area has been on a long, slow decline with shrinking timber harvests on surrounding public land and battered further by the closing two years ago of a Monaco Coach RV plant. Unemployment now stands at over 16% in the county, half the remaining workforce is in the public sector and the largest private employer is the Safeway in the county seat of Burns (population 3,000).

Crowley also has been going the extra mile for the local seal of approval. In addition to hiring a crew to build an early access road, he bought a Chevy Yukon at the dealership in Burns and supported the local Fourth of July fireworks display this summer. He’s held informational meetings for handfuls of people in tiny ranch communities like Diamond (“Population: 5” reads the token sign) and fielded questions about windmills tipping over cows. He dines and swaps pictures of his kids with Harney County Judge Steve Grasty.

He even has brought his family down for spring breaks. “We talked about moving down here,” he says. “I wish we had.”

When it came time for a hearing in June on whether the state should bar wind development in a special management area around Steens Mountain, almost 200 people turned up at the Harney County fairgrounds in support of the project, overwhelming the dozen or so objectors.

“Chris did it right. He got involved. He went to dinner with people,” says Grasty. “It’s what the obstructionist groups won’t do,” he says, referring to environmental groups. “They don’t have representation in the community. They don’t come to the fair or football games. This community will absorb people quickly. It will also put up barriers if you don’t want to participate.” Grasty, for his part, has become a windphile, with a faded, early-1900s picture at the ready near his desk showing 27 tin water-pump windmills in downtown Burns.

But excitement around town has given way to restlessness in the three years of planning, delays and petitions that followed swift county approval for the first project in mid-2007.

Crowley hasn’t been in Harney County for 10 minutes on his mid-summer trip when he’s greeted with an earnest, “When you going to put me to work?” from an equipment operator, while standing around the local shooting range.

“As soon as I can get the green light on this thing!” Crowley fires back, gamely.

Down in town, he introduces himself to a group of women at a local watering hole, and one promptly asks: “My son’s 20. Can you give him a job?”

Ranchers who’ve set aside reservations about 400 foot-tall turbines and doubts about global warming and Obama (“I don’t talk straight politics much,” says Crowley) are now wondering when their royalties are going to start. “If you can get this built, I can retire,” rancher Hoyt Wilson tells Crowley, as they stand at the base of the majestic 1,000-foot ridge Wilson owns on the Steens’ east side that will be “cluttered” — as Wilson says — with the first 45 windmills known as the Echanis project. Wilson, 68, figures the turbines offer a way to keep his 28,000-acre Mann Lake Ranch intact and float his marginal cow-calf operation so he can hand the ranch off to his kids. “Then again, I might die before you get this thing up!” he jests with Crowley.

Whatever anxiousness greets him in Harney, Crowley is sold on the ranchers’ salt-of-the-earth pride, the way they fight off rattlesnake bites and give birth at home and live to 90 in the face of financial and legislative distress. And as he drives Harney’s back roads, noting notorious caves, who’s moved their cattle and where a herd of imported buffalo used to roam, he channels a worn voice and asks, “When does Harney County get something?”

Environmentalists aren’t so sympathetic, noting that ranchers made out handsomely in the 2000 deal that saw them give up lands around the Steens peak to create a cow-free wilderness. Landowners received cash payments and added contiguous rangelands at lower elevations in exchange. They also agreed to forgo substantial development in a new management zone around the mountain, where Columbia Energy’s two unpermitted projects would go.

ONDA’s Brent Fenty points to a line in the 2000 Steens Mountain Wilderness Act prohibiting anything “different from the current character and uses of the land” in the special management zone. But Crowley notes that an appendix to the Steens Act also says that public land managers may promote clean energy in the area.

Retrenchment looked like such a distant possibility to Crowley this spring that he handed off negotiating with ONDA to his lawyer, Jon Norling.

But slowly over the summer, the playing field began to change. First, ONDA hinted at a willingness to bargain when it agreed to abstain from legal action on another energy project — the Ruby natural gas pipeline from southwestern Wyoming into Malin, just south of Klamath Falls — in exchange for a $22 million agreement from pipeline builder El Paso Corp. to fund habitat restoration and grazing permit retirement.

Then the federal Bureau of Land Management, which is studying Columbia Energy’s transmission line across the Steens cooperative management area and the nearby Malheur bird refuge, said the wind turbines in all of the Columbia Energy projects would only be visible from 0.4% of the Steens wilderness area.

When Norling finally got a meeting with the ONDA in early August, he says the tone was lighter. “We were buoyed by the Ruby pipeline deal,” Norling says. According to Norling, ONDA staffers no longer raised any concerns about scenic blight from the turbines, and the two groups began sketching out an agreement that would set aside land and money to mitigate losses to wildlife habitat from the wind turbines, in exchange for no legal challenges from ONDA. ONDA leaders maintain that no deal has been reached. “Our position hasn’t changed,” says Liz Nysson, ONDA’s climate change coordinator.

Even if there is a glimmer of progress, Crowley is not smiling yet. A deal in the next few months could pave the way for the first project to come online as early as next year. But while his colleagues view the concession as part of the cost of doing business, Crowley seems to see it as deeply dissatisfying. A new compensation fund, similar to the one ONDA set up as part of the Ruby pipeline, would mean that Crowley’s wind projects weren’t much better than a natural gas pipeline. The approval of green groups needs to be bought in the same way. And that’s a harsh reality.

“We’re green power, not fossil fuels!” Crowley says. “I hope that still has some bearing on things. We’re a good thing.”

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