State mulls rules on wind farming

OLYMPIA -- Power generated by Northwest wind turbines will likely double in the next two years, but some energy officials are worried the negative effects have not been properly assessed and understood.

The number of wind turbines in the state, such as those dotting the horizon of the Horse Heaven Hills south of Kennewick to Walla Walla, has boomed in the past seven years, with 2,100 now in operation, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Washington does not require regulatory agencies to consider their effects on nearby property owners or wildlife, and state and local officials are discussing evaluation policies before hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- more are built.

This wasn't troublesome in past years, when there were fewer wind farms, said Al Wright, manager of the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. But the wind energy industry has grown steadily since 2004, and some experts are concerned about the negative side of continued growth.

"Every individual project has its bad aspects," Wright said.

Wind turbines can be fatal for birds and bats. They also are noisy, and some find them aesthetically unpleasant. While these might not be issues at a particular location, they quickly can add up to to bigger problems.

"And so you'll hear the terminology that's starting to be used a lot on wind farm analysis, 'What's the cumulative effect of all of these?' " he said.

Policies to measure the region's benefits and costs of wind energy still are in the planning stages, but the issue is definitely on the council's radar, Wright said.

This spring, a panel of fish and wildlife representatives met with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to propose strategies for group action.

The cumulative effects of wind farms are best measured regionally because of migratory bird patterns, said Bill Tweit of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"That's why we thought that the power council would be a good place to broach the subject," Tweit said. "We're not saying that wind power is bad. We're saying that siting decisions need to be made with as much info as possible."

This type of policy adjustment happens frequently in all kinds of resource development, Wright said.

"Nobody would have guessed when the wind farms started, long before they got these huge tax credits ... (that) this kind of development would have occurred," he said.