Wind turbines could be the next cash crop for Whitman County’s wheat farmers.
A Boston company wants to build a $170 million wind farm on a ridge near Oakesdale, a town of 400 people about 30 miles southwest of Spokane. First Wind Energy LLC is seeking permits for up to 50 turbines on 5,000 acres leased from local growers.
The venture would be the county’s first commercial wind farm.
“Even though Whitman County seems windy, it doesn’t have the same kind of winds as the Columbia River Gorge,” said Alan Thomson, the county planner. “When First Wind Energy approached us about putting up a meteorological (test) tower, we realized that we had our first serious applicant.”
A combination of prevailing winds and proximity to an existing transmission line made the Palouse project attractive, said Ben Fairbanks, First Wind’s business development director in the Northwest.
The proposed wind farm would generate up to 100 megawatts of electricity at its peak. But because the wind doesn’t blow all the time, the average yearly output would be less, Fairbanks said. Company officials anticipate that the turbines would produce enough electricity per year to meet the needs of 25,000 residences.
Last year, Whitman County updated its wind turbine ordinance. As part of the permitting process, First Wind Energy is preparing a draft environmental impact statement, which will be out in mid-November for a 30-day public review.
Fairbanks said his company followed wind farm guidelines developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“One of the great things about the Palouse is that it’s a pretty industrial landscape,” Fairbanks said. “It’s been farmed for over 100 years, so it doesn’t have great wildlife habitat left. It’s pretty well suited for development.”
Each 400- to 500-foot tall turbine and access road takes up about two acres. Landowners can continue to farm around them, Fairbanks said.
First Wind Energy anticipates finalizing the permits for the wind farm by mid-2011, he said. The six- to eight-month construction process could begin later next year.
The wind farm is about three miles from Oakesdale. Even though the turbines will be erected in an industrial zone, Fairbanks said that he expects the noise levels to meet Washington residential limits of 50 decibels.
The proposed Palouse wind farm is the second Northwest project for First Wind Energy. The company has also applied for permits to build a 500 megawatt project in Oregon’s Gilliam County.