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Putting wind in perspective

April 4, 2012

April 4, 2012

Putting wind in perspective

Achieving independence from fossil fuels is a heady ideal to be sure. But as the debate over the proposed wind farm in West Rutland warms up, it’s encouraging to see realistic considerations entering the mix. The recent letter outlining the critical importance of the Hubbardton Battlefield area to Vermont’s history is to the point. The events in early Vermont are not just quaint footnotes to American history, but contain lessons of value to anyone studying the foundations of our nation. Let’s include heritage and the human environment along with the biological one when assessing impacts of such a drastic — and permanent — project.

Let’s also refer to the realities of wind generation projects that have been in use elsewhere in the nation, and compare their operation to our tiny spot on the map. The Stateline Wind Farm is the largest in the Pacific Northwest and straddles the line between Washington state and Oregon. There are at least 454 242-foot-high wind turbines ranked in long rows on a vast, windswept grassland in the Columbia River country, where winds coming down the Columbia Gorge average 16-18 mph. At that rate, the project can generate 30-35 percent of its total capacity year-round, enough to power about 70,000 homes. At wind speeds greater than 56 mph, the turbines are designed to shut down.

The Energy Atlas of the West ( says Washington state alone has “over 1 million acres of windy land.” Other wind farms are located in Texas, Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Kansas — all of which are known for their wide open spaces and huge tracts of relatively level terrain. Anyone who has taken a road trip through the West knows that the wind blows incessantly in those places, and the Columbia River area is no different. Even at that, a report prepared in 2005 for the Western Area Power Administration and others concedes that “due to the intermittency of wind power generation, the Stateline system requires back-up power from natural gas.”

The Stateline Wind Farm began operation in 2001. I first came across it about that time, while driving into the Pendleton area from Walla Walla. The landscape there consists of high rolling hills of yellow grass broken by dry gulches, outcrops of basalt, and clumps of sagebrush, as far as the eye can see. The emptiness is striking to someone from back East. Suddenly you top a rise and spread before you are miles and miles of windmills, looking like so many airplane propellers on poles, arranged on a grid. It’s an arresting sight. Some people find them beautiful.

The land area of Umatilla County is 3,215 square miles, with a population density as of the 2010 census of 23.6 persons per square mile. Its neighbor in Washington state, Walla Walla County, which shares the wind farm, is slightly smaller and more densely populated, at 1,270 square miles and 46.3 persons per square mile. Rutland County is 929.82 square miles with 66.3 persons per square mile.

Other considerations aside, is there room and is there enough wind to justify this project? Is it an appropriate use of Grandpa’s Knob in West Rutland?


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