Monday, December 31, 2007

The Wind Farms Are Coming

Like machines in a Star Wars movie emerging from their lair on the Columbia River bank, wind powered turbines are advancing across the hills in Eastern Washington. I had business at the Grant County Courthouse recently and drove from Seattle to Ephrata to attend a hearing for my client, a mechanical contractor from Moses Lake. I drive Interstate 90 frequently and maybe they were there before, but I did not notice them until this last summer when, as I drove over the hill from Cle Elum toward Ellensburg, I saw the machines silhouetted on the distant horizon.

Our geography is like no other in the world, from temperate rain forests in the west to high desert plains in the east, with glaciers in the mountains feeding our great rivers, and the visual landscape is beautiful. Highway 2 from Wenatchee to Davenport is one of my favorite roads; the fields come right up to the two lane roadway, and abandoned farm houses, barns and wind mills at the old well stand still. On the highway from Spokane to Colfax, near Sprague, you can see an old railroad bridge that spans several hills; the tracks have been removed and from a distance its magnificent stone arches look like an old Roman aqueduct. Billboard signs along the way say “Leave the Dams Alone.”

It is a classic, Western, geography where you can see Indian Tribes, hard rock miners, 4-H champions, ropings and rodeos, a steady wind pushing tumbleweeds across the road and, best of all, vistas wide open as far as the eye can see. Drawn to Gonzaga Law School at first by the fishing, camping and skiing nearby, I lived in Spokane for four years and learned about some of the geography in courses on mining law and water law. The rest I picked up at barter fairs in Ione and Tonasket, hiking in the Selkirks, fishing on the Snake River at Penawawa, driving down a frozen Highway 395 from Ritzville to Tri-Cities on a gray zero degree day thankful for the studded tires on my rear wheels, and an estate auction at an old farmstead near Lind. We bought an old ironing board with a floral print cover at the auction, and after we got it home we found it had nine covers, one on top of the other. What is old is good, what is very old is even better and some of these landscapes are as old as the hills.

Eastern Washington’s Western outlook includes a healthy skepticism about the power of government. Without forgetting that government built the dams that provide irrigation and power, or that government subsidized the railroads that helped populate the region, or that government is trying to protect the aquifer, or that government can do many things well, government also too often intrudes in ways that a Westerner resents. And these new wind farms set the stage for a reevaluation of the values that we hold dear.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2004 (the year the most recent data is available) Washington was a net exporter of electricity. That means we generate more electricity than we use. Most of our electricity, naturally, is generated by the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers in Eastern Washington with smaller contributions from the Skagit and Elwa Rivers in Western Washington. But new wind farms are being approved in Eastern Washington as fast as Governor Gregoire can say “yes,” and in many cases, such as a recent approval for Kittitas County, approval in Olympia comes over strenuous objections from local residents who don’t want their horizons blotted with large lifeless machines.

But why shouldn’t a rancher with thousands of acres of otherwise unproductive land where the wind blows all day be allowed to harvest the wind? Isn’t that what property rights are all about? The electric power grid is national and the largest importer of power in the Western states is California. Would it matter if corporate interests seeking to export the power for profit were the developers of these wind farms? Don’t we need more energy and not less, especially if it can be acquired without burning fossil fuels?

Or should the value of a wide open horizon on a clear day outweigh these other interests?