Whistling Ridge wind project approved but economics questioned

Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire has approved a scaled down plan for a 35-turbine wind project, although the reduced scope creates questions about its economic potential.

The governor approved the site certificate agreement for the Whistling Ridge wind project in Skamania County, following the recommendations of the state’s the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC).

The proposal originally called for 50 wind turbines but faced opposition from environmental groups and nearby landowners due to the wind farm’s potential visual and noise impacts. In an attempt to rectify these concerns, Gregoire modified the proposal to allow for 35 wind turbines to be built on the north side of the Columbia River Gorge.

But a spokesperson for the developer, Whistling Ridge Energy LLC, said the project may not be economically viable with the smaller footprint. Whistling Ridge previously said it would switch to 2 MW turbines, giving it a maximum of 70 MW of generating capacity.

“After careful review and consideration, I informed the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) today that I will follow its unanimous recommendation and approve the 35 new wind turbines to be built by Whistling Ridge Energy LLC,” Gregoire said in a statement. “This decision wasn’t reached lightly,” she said. “I weighed the hundreds of public comments collected by EFSEC. I examined the results of various environmental and land use reviews. And I considered the expert testimony gathered by EFSEC on the impact of new wind turbines.

The spokesperson said approval was preferable to an outright denial. But limiting development on private land outside the Gorge scenic area boundary sets a dangerous precedent.

Low energy prices and uncertainty surrounding federal tax credits will halt the project for now, the spokesperson said. Reducing it to 35 turbines won’t allow Whistling Ridge to generate enough energy to be economically viable, he said.

The developer has five years from the governor’s decision to start construction. But given low power prices and the uncertainty of federal support for renewable energy projects, the project is essentially on hold. Opponents are also contemplating an appeal.