A plateau of dry wheat fields and desert sagebrush lines the horizon at the Powers family's south-central Washington ranch. At first glance, rural...
BICKLETON, Klickitat County — A plateau of dry wheat fields and desert sagebrush lines the horizon at the Powers family’s south-central Washington ranch.
At first glance, rural Klickitat County might not appear to offer much. But a second look at the wheat, still green from late spring rains, finds it fluttering in the region’s newest natural resource: wind.
Earlier this year, county officials took a bold step by creating a so-called Energy Overlay Zone, a planning tool aimed at expediting renewable energy development. Wind developers, who often face bitter battles with locals who object to massive turbine farms, say it is the first such zone in the country, and they’re calling the few residents who live in Klickitat County a mighty progressive bunch.
“This is like the year before the gold rush, and they’re on top of it,” said Bruce Morley, chief executive officer of Wind River Power, a consortium of companies aiming to build a 300-megawatt wind farm in central Klickitat County. The project would be one of the largest in the world, creating enough electricity for roughly 100,000 homes.
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“It’s very clear there’s a green-power revolution going on in the United States now, and Klickitat County is really at the forefront of that,” he said. “It’s really unusual to see that from an area so rural.”
Since the timber mills in the area shut down in the 1980s, the county with a population of fewer than 20,000 people has had one of the top five unemployment rates in the state.
“Rural areas that have these natural-resource-based economies are getting hammered right now,” said Dana Peck, director of economic development for Klickitat County.
Klickitat County aims to change that with a resource that’s been blowing through its hills and canyons for uncounted years.
That change is the Energy Overlay Zone, a sort of mapping tool that tells wind developers where they are welcome.
Addressing zoning for wind makes the county rare, said Jim Green, senior project leader for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.
Zoning allows a county to create a generic ordinance for a larger area, rather than create ordinances in a piecemeal fashion for specific sites, he said.
The Energy Overlay Zone covers more than 1,100 square miles, two-thirds of Klickitat County.
Residents also had the option to opt out, and some did: Near Snowden, in the western half of the county, residents made it clear they opposed wind development in their back yards.
Others couldn’t wait. Even before the county approved the Energy Overlay Zone, the Powers family signed a lease with a wind developer that aims to put in a 200-megawatt wind farm.
The Powers family declined to discuss the potential windfall for them personally. Other wind projects have resulted in dividends of up to a few thousand dollars per turbine for landowners.
“The first developers came to his area and said, ‘Hmm, hardly anybody lives out here. That’s a good sign,’ ” farmer Lance Powers said. “Hardly anybody lives where the wind blows.”
But those who do live there want to remain on the land their families have farmed for years, he said. The added income, as well as the jobs created by wind development, make that all the more possible.
The county estimates that the two wind projects already permitted will generate an additional $130,000 in property-tax revenue for the local fire department.
“That’s almost inconceivable,” Peck said. “Imagine what it can do for everyone else.”