The amount of wind power produced along the blustery Columbia Gorge is expected to more than triple in coming years. But the Gorge isn't...

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BEND, Ore. — The amount of wind power produced along the blustery Columbia Gorge is expected to more than triple in coming years. But the Gorge isn’t the only Oregon locale that wind-development companies are eyeing.

In Harney County, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the county have seen a jump in interest surrounding the windy Eastern Oregon ridges and peaks near Steens Mountain as companies look for different sources of the renewable power to meet state standards.

A wind farm typically has between 45 and 50 turbines that each measure 400 feet tall. Harney County has already permitted one farm and is considering three more.

And the Burns BLM district is handling numerous requests for permits to test the winds in the area.

“We are seeing quite a bit of interest,” said Karla Bird, field manager with the Bureau of Land Management’s Burns district. “Within the last three months, we’ve had multiple companies racing each other through the doors.”

This summer, the bureau has received seven applications for wind-testing facilities, said Skip Renchler, real-estate specialist with the Burns district.

That’s in addition to requests to amend the permits for the two existing test towers, which were approved a couple of years ago.

The new companies hope to put 34 meteorological towers across the Burns district that would gauge the winds across 158,000 acres of public land to see if they are strong enough to turn turbines consistently.

“When we typically have little mountain ranges, every time the air moves past, it’s pushed up and over,” Bird said. “They’re testing to see whether or not it’s sufficient for wind-power development.”

Wind farms in Oregon now produce almost 900 megawatts of electricity, said Lou Torres, spokesman with the Oregon Department of Energy. One megawatt can power between 300 and 400 average homes.

The farms that have either been approved or are under construction would add 2,400 megawatts to that total in the coming years, Torres said.

“Oregon in the next couple of years will move from around ninth in the country [for wind-power production] to maybe third,” Torres said.

Under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, the Bureau of Land Management was directed to make as much public land available for energy development as it can, Bird said, but it still has to do environmental analysis on the effect of the wind turbines.

And there are regulations that prevent testing in a wilderness area, a wilderness study area, areas covered by the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, and areas within two miles of a sage grouse lek, or mating site.

“We may not have as much as people would like us to have available,” Bird said.

Horizon Wind Energy, which has developed more than 2,000 megawatts of wind power across the country, applied for permission to erect meteorological test poles in both the Stinkingwater Mountains and Pueblo Mountains in southeastern Oregon in 2006, said Valerie Schafer Franklin, company project-development manager.

The test poles make sure there would be winds strong and steady enough to generate sufficient power.

“You put up [meteorological] poles all over the place to test the wind, because the one thing you can never mitigate for is bad wind,” Franklin said.

Ideally, companies would like to see winds that are about 16 mph. So far, it’s looking good for the Pueblo Mountains, but not so favorable for the Stinkingwater Mountains, Franklin said.

One appealing feature of the southeast Oregon winds is they appear to peak during the winter, she said. That could complement the winds in the Gorge, which blow hardest in the spring.

“What you’re looking for in wind energy is geographic diversity,” Franklin said. “Where there’s a big concentration of wind right now, it peaks in the spring.”

Since a recent state law determined Oregon utilities must get 25 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2025, companies are on the hunt.

“The best and cheapest way to meet the [renewable requirements] is to do a majority of wind,” Franklin said.

These would be one of the first projects Horizon Wind Energy has done on public land, she said, which adds a layer to the permitting process.

Companies are looking to private lands in Harney County as well.

The county has given the OK to one wind farm, the Echanis Wind Project, and expects to have three more permits in the works within weeks, said Steve Grasty, Harney County judge.

“I know there are at least four companies that have had some interest within Harney County and I know that there’s a minimum of 10 sites that, at first glance, they say might be doable,” Grasty said, adding there could be as much as 1,000 megawatts of energy produced in the area.

Mostly “what if”

“A lot of this has been ‘what if’ until this point,” he said. But he’s hoping more starts happening soon.

“What I hear is pretty positive support for having sustainable energy, for getting away from dependence on foreign oil, and the job creation,” Grasty said. If people express concerns, it’s about what windmills would do to the view, he said.

But projects like the 104-megawatt Echanis proposal would bring economic benefits to the area and could provide income to ranchers struggling to keep afloat.

“The landowner told me that this may provide his family with the opportunity to keep an old-time ranch in one piece, in their family, for several generations,” Grasty said. “And that beats the heck out of 100 different ranchettes.”

Details aren’t settled on the Echanis project, said Chris Crowley, president of Columbia Energy Partners, which is developing the wind farm. But it would probably include from 45 to 69 wind turbines on the north side of Steens.

But for renewable energy to be efficient, the state needs diverse sources, Crowley said.

One factor holding back wind power in places like Harney County is whether the infrastructure can handle the new electricity, said Torres.

Rural areas generally do not have enough transmission lines to carry the electricity, he said.

But the 25 percent renewable-energy requirement is driving the search for new wind power sites, and there are tax credits available, Torres said. Large wind farms could get half of the construction costs as a tax credit, up to $20 million.

And while companies consider where to site wind farms, agencies are determining how to permit the facilities and what guidelines to set for the tower locations.

“We definitely have seen an increase in interest,” said Michael Campbell, spokesman for the agency’s regional office. “To that extent, we’re starting to get ready from a logistical standpoint.”

Wildlife impact

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which provides recommendations to counties and the state Energy Facility Siting Council, is working on determining the potential impacts on wildlife.

The agency will comment on factors such as the effects of wind turbines on deer and elk winter range, pygmy rabbit habitat and especially potential effects on sage grouse, said Bob Hooton, Klamath and Malheur Watershed district manager with the agency.

But the policies and recommendations can be confusing, he said, noting that a new bureau regulation states companies can’t put up a meteorological tower within two miles of a sage grouse lek, but the Fish and Wildlife recommendations state that towers shouldn’t be within five miles of sage grouse habitat.

“This thing’s happening so fast that I’m not sure anybody’s got it,” Hooton said. “We’re not trying to stop development — there could be some detrimental effects if it’s not done right.”