Pacific Northwest | April 4, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineApril 4, home
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Wildcatters of the Wind: Prospecting for power, they go where the wind blows

Wind prospector John Wade checks the shape of the wind with a ribbon he keeps in his pocket. Curls mean turbulence — a strike against any potential wind site.

John Wade does not drive like most people. He's not looking where he's going as he bangs over this rutted logging road. Instead, he's craning his neck forward, peering beyond the roof of the car to the tops of the trees.

To search for the wind.

"Oh, there. Right there, that's really good flagging," Wade says, spotting a fringe of trees on the ridge above, their tops chewed away by the ceaseless gnawing of the wind.
Tools of the wind prospector's trade: a compass; a hand-held global positioning unit, to mark windy spots; and a camera, to provide proof of wind-deformed vegetation for potential developers.
He checks a hand-held global positioning system to note the location of these trees: a potential X on the treasure map.

For if Wade is right, this scrubby patch in the Willapa Hills, where the wind blasts in from the Pacific, may one day sprout a farm of spinning wind turbines, planted just where Wade says the sweet spot is.

Wade, based in Portland, is part of a small cadre of wind prospectors, just a dozen or so people in the country who search the Northwest and the world for whitewater in the sky river of wind.

Wind prospectors are the vanguard of the fastest growing source of energy in the world: wind farms. Prospectors usually work as wildcatters, typically paid $80 to $120 an hour by energy companies to find the best spots for wind turbines.

Part science and part black art, prospecting must go beyond maps and weather data to read the face of the land for the mark of the wind. Maps can be wrong, weather data incomplete. And people, on their own, almost always overestimate.

"I ask people who call me, saying they live in a really windy spot, 'Have you ever wanted to kill one of your relatives?' " Wade says. "No? Well, then, it is not windy enough."
Wind has desiccated and denuded this tree on one side. Such so-called flagged trees are a dead giveaway for wind prospectors seeking good spots for wind turbines.
But nature shouts hot tips to those who speak the language of the wind. Stumps that betray misshapen rings, thin on the windy side, fatter on the calm. A hilltop scoured to gravel. A pinch point in a canyon or a cliff that falls off to a ravine below.

Wade began research in the 1970s to create an index of wind speeds, today used worldwide, based on the shapes of wind-deformed trees.

An upright tree with a perfect shape? That's Class I, or light wind. "Not interesting," Wade says.

A tree with branches slightly off kilter, as if lightly shorn? "Kind of interesting." Class II. Not worth getting out of the truck.

But a tree denuded, desiccated, strafed bare on one side? Class IV. "That's money."

Especially if it's not just a softie, like a cedar, cowering in the wind. "I want a tough tree, not a marshmallow," Wade says. "I see a spruce or a true fir, I get really excited."

Wade stops on a cliff, where flagged trees beckon, and the wind pours like a waterfall to the ravine below.
The Stateline Wind Project, near Touchet in Walla Walla County, is one of the largest in the world, with 454 turbines scattered over Oregon and Washington.
Whipping a 20-foot-long fluorescent orange ribbon from a pocket, Wade holds it like a kite and watches it writhe, giving shape to an invisible trove of wind power.

But Wade scowls. Writhing is bad. Writhing means turbulence. Turbulence means wind blades that yaw instead of steadily churning out kilowatts.

"We've got semi-issues here.

"I don't want wind with issues. I want wind that makes this stand out like a frozen rope. I want well-behaved wind."

But back from the cliff, where the wind purrs, a little yellow vinyl flag waves on a stake.

Pounded by Wade into the ground that morning, it's the X that marks the spot, Wade thinks, to mine the wind.

•   •   •

THE WIND, says nature writer Jan DeBlieu, has been understood over time as many things, from the restless souls of the dead to a holy force that leaves whorls on the tips of our fingers and toes, whispers advice in our ears and dictates our number of days on Earth.
The inside of a wind tower reflects the clean nature of wind power — which is free and infinitely renewable, entails no emissions or spills and uses no water. Workers equipped with safety harnesses climb ladders inside the towers to monitor and maintain them.
It gives voice and dance to the trees. Spreads the fragrance of flowers. Stirs the pheromones of insects and consummates plant sex, dispersing great chartreuse clouds of pollen. It balloons spiders to new country and ferries migrating birds across continents.

Wind is spawned by differences in temperature and pressure. When air is cold, its molecules huddle together, making it heavy and causing it to sink. It will seek the vacuum caused by lighter, rising warm air. The result is a restless, ceaseless chase — cold to warm, dense to light.

Measured to the 16 points of the compass, today high-resolution computerized maps track the chase, showing the wind's speed anywhere in the country with the click of a mouse.

While not one of the country's windiest places, some of the first and best research on wind power was done in the Northwest, where so-called "soft"-energy experts at the Bonneville Power Administration saw promise in marrying wind with hydropower. Soft, as in not based on fossil fuel.
At 200 feet up in the air, wind technician Steve Wheeler and project manager Terry Meade radio ground crews while checking the generator on one of the turbines at the Nine Canyon Wind Farm. Including the prop, the turbine is 300 feet high.
With backing from the BPA, scientists at Oregon State University created the country's first long-term database of wind speed and direction, helping to jump start the wind industry here.

Engineering of wind farms was also pioneered here in the early 1980s when Boeing built the first large wind plant in the world — for the BPA, NASA and U.S. Department of Energy — near Goldendale above the Columbia River Gorge.

Scientists from around the world came to marvel at the colossal windmills. Made entirely of steel, they weighed more than 309 tons each and stood 350 feet tall to the tip of their blades.

The torque of the massive blades was so great they once whipped a steel shaft on one of the machines into a giant peppermint twist.

Operational from 1980 through 1986, rotors from some of the machines are still around in a scrap yard in Portland, artifacts in the bone yard of early utility-scale wind-power development.
How wind farms produce electricity
Graphic thumbnail
Since that $52 million experiment, wind energy still provides less than 1 percent of the power consumed in Washington; hydropower still rules with 72 percent. Wind cranked out only .21 percent of the kilowatts consumed in Washington state in 2002.But that is changing. Seventeen utilities in Washington now offer their customers "green" power, as required by a 2002 state law, most of it from the wind.

The decreasing cost of wind-energy development; the rising and unpredictable price of natural gas; federal tax credits and concern about the harmful emissions of fossil fuels, especially coal, are driving even mainstream utilities into the arms of wind power.

Momentum has slowed with the expiration of a federal tax credit, but proponents are working to revive it. Meanwhile, Puget Power and PacifiCorp, serving customers throughout the Northwest, are seeking to diversify their energy sources with wind. Wind farms are under consideration from the Willapa Hills to the outskirts of Ellensburg and Kennewick all the way to Walla Walla County, home to one of the world's largest wind farms.
Wind prospector Bob Baker, left, and his sons, Jason, in the truck, and Jeff, in back, check a 160-foot-high meteorological tower placed with Baker's direction in a farmer's field. Instruments at three levels on the mast gauge wind speeds for a possible wind-farm expansion at Klondike, Ore.
On the grassy hills above the Gorge, wind prospector Ron Nierenberg of Camas is at work for Invenergy, a Chicago company seeking wind it hopes will snag Puget's investment.

Nierenberg walks the landscape looking for subtle rises of topography or pinches in the land that funnel and accelerate the wind. Many potential sites are marginal, and a small topographic feature that doesn't show on a map can make or break it.

"That's the fun part of it; every spot has its little quirks to it," Nierenberg says. And then there are the hazards of the job: Territorial bulls in farmers' fields (he learned to pack a ladder to shoo them off); wet-tongued cattle licking tree sap from his car, leaving their slurp flocked in dust.

Glasses shoved up on his forehead as he eyeballs a topographic map, Nierenberg looks like a classics professor squinting at an obscure translation. A potential $90 million investment will ride, in part, on his opinion. Which is mercilessly frank.

"Those are going to stink," he says, stabbing a finger toward hills in the near distance that Tom Hiester of Sammamish, a wind developer for Invenergy, asks about.

"I've been on that hill," says Nierenberg. "It stinks."

•   •   •

TAKE IT FROM the prospectors, all the no-brainer wind sites in the Northwest — places with blasting wind, close to existing transmission towers, without problems getting permits — are already taken. That is pushing developers closer to people — and views some are determined to protect.
Stark beauty or ruination of rural landscapes? Wind farms, the fastest-growing power source in the world, dramatically affect views.
Wind farms outside Ellensburg proposed by a Houston-based developer and a French energy company are the first in Washington to prove significantly controversial.

From Seattleites with $350,000 second homes in the ponderosa to an amateur astronomer from Snohomish who doesn't want to lose his dark night sky, developers are getting an earful.

The three projects together would cover about 17,000 acres, with some towers built less than five miles from Interstate 90. Lit with flashing aviation lights and festooned with turning blades about the size of the wingspan of a 747, the strings of turbines will ruin their view, say some of the locals.

"I'd never have another normal sunset again," says Ed Garrett, the astronomer and spokesman for the opponents. "This land has scenic value; and, like a painting, once it's defaced, it's defaced. I love the solitude here. I love my open skies."
A growing industry?
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Andrew Young, developer of two of the projects for Zilkha Renewable Energy of Houston, says the company values the sites because of their proximity to transmission lines — and great wind.

"We wouldn't be fighting so hard if we thought there were tons of sites," Young says. "But I didn't just fall off the turnip truck of wind prospecting; these are the top sites that pencil out.

"And just because you buy 10 acres doesn't mean you own the view across 1,000."

•   •   •

JASON BAKER, 23, fiddles with his laptop, checking the guts of an electronic data logger in the base of a meteorological tower planted in a farmer's wheat field to gauge the wind. His bare fingers work the keys in the cold under the watchful eyes of his brother, Jeff, and father, Bob, a wind prospector based in Washougal.

On Bob's advice, wind data collected from this spot will be used to assess where to put a planned expansion of the Klondike wind farm in Eastern Oregon for PPM Energy, a subsidiary of ScottishPower, based in Glasgow, Scotland.

Placed by wind prospectors, these so-called met towers, with instruments to electronically measure wind speeds aloft, record data usually for at least a year before a developer decides to build.

When he started out in this industry in 1973 with Oregon State and Bonneville, Bob Baker, 58, used kites rigged with anemometers to gauge wind speeds. Data was recorded on paper strip charts, marked by an ink pen driven by the wind.

He employed graduate students to fan out across the landscape, read the charts and punch data onto computer cards. Today, Baker can sit in his office and review wind data recorded in solar-powered microchips at the base of met towers, e-mailed automatically by cell phone to his computer.

His career has traced the arc of wind power, from an academic pursuit and commercial what-if to his weekly paycheck from one of the biggest energy companies in the world. Wind power now employs the second generation of Baker boys.

Baker will study data from this met tower for the guy with the sharp pencil wanting to know the bottom line: "I'm used to thinking in wind speeds," Baker says wistfully. "But it's, 'What's the kilowatt hours. Just give me the number.' "

A few more tweaks and checks, and pretty soon the Baker sons, two single guys good at keeping deli burritos warm on the engine block, will move on to the next windy spot.

It's back in the mud-slathered pickup, their clothes in a garbage bag, a portable burn barrel for winter field work tossed in the back alongside the tower-rigging gear.

Next stop, West Texas.

Lynda V. Mapes is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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