A Gust of Wind Energy; Vansycle Ridge Wind Project Under Construction Amidst Wheat Fields of Northeastern Oregon  

By: Mark Ohrenschall Con.WEB July 31, 1998

Rising amidst the rolling wheat fields of northeastern Oregon is the first large-scale wind-energy plant in the Pacific Northwest.

The Vansycle Ridge wind project, under construction north of Pendleton, is scheduled for completion by the end of this year, and the start of operations by early 1999. Its 38 giant turbines will be collectively capable of generating 24.9 megawatts of electricity (although wind farms, of course, only produce power when the wind blows). The energy from Vansycle Ridge is committed to Portland General Electric.

This is actually the second major wind-energy project being built for the Northwest. The Wyoming Wind Energy Project--owned by PacifiCorp (79 percent) and Eugene Water & Electric Board (21 percent), with Bonneville Power Administration as a major power purchaser--also is under construction. (See Con.WEB, Oct. 31, 1997, for a story on the Wyoming project.)

International Scope

Although located in the geographic center of the Northwest, Vansycle Ridge is truly national and even international in scope. The developer is ESI Energy, an affiliate of a subsidiary of the holding company that owns Florida Power & Light. The wind turbines come from Vestas, a Denmark company that is the world's largest turbine manufacturer. And the purchaser of all the energy produced at Vansycle Ridge will be PGE, a subsidiary of Enron, a natural gas and electricity conglomerate active around the world.

Vansycle Ridge has long been eyed by PGE as a renewable energy resource. Earlier this decade the investor-owned utility contracted with Kenetech Windpower to buy Vansycle Ridge's output, but Kenetech filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Zond Development subsequently bought the project assets from Kenetech through bankruptcy court, and reached a 30-year power-purchase agreement with PGE in late 1996 (see Con.WEB, Dec. 19, 1996). Shortly thereafter, Enron acquired Zond, which, to avoid any conflict of interest, assigned its 50-percent ownership in Vanscyle Ridge to the other 50-percent owner, ESI Energy.

"Our role is basically we've agreed to buy the power," said PGE spokesman Kregg Arnston. The IOU, which has proposed to sell its electric-generating assets, is yet uncertain how it will use this wind energy.

"Vansycle's purpose is to test the technology and the price," Arnston said. "It's part of our least-cost plan commitment to renewable technology. As is generally known with renewables and green power, it's expected the cost will be somewhat higher than other non-renewable options." Specific cost projections were unavailable from PGE and ESI. Vansycle Ridge will be eligible to apply for a 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour federal tax credit over 10 years if it goes into operation by July 1999, according to Jeff King of the Northwest Power Planning Council.

Published reports have quoted project manager Collie Powell's estimate of $30 million to $35 million as the total cost of the Vansycle Ridge wind venture.

Powell declined to discuss costs in an interview with Con.WEB, but he did note the estimated project completion date of December 1998. "We're moving ahead," he said on July 28. "We've got towers and turbines going up . . .

"We will build a quality project on schedule and on budget and it will provide low-cost energy," he said.

Although Vanscycle Ridge is the only current Northwest project for ESI, "Considering the wind resource we'd be foolish to sit here and think some entity, be it us or others, wouldn't end up building others . . . We're hopeful by the time we're done we will have done such a good job we will be the preferred provider of this type of power."

Vansycle Ridge

For geographical reference, Vanscyle Ridge is located about 15 miles southeast of the point where the Columbia River bends westward toward the Pacific Ocean to form the Oregon/Washington border. From another vantage it is north and west of the Blue Mountains. Vansycle Ridge occupies high ground above vast undulating wheat fields, some shimmering golden in the brilliant July sunshine, others fallow. It is located a few miles north of Helix (population 165), which, ironically, has a road named Solar.

The project site lies on two private farms where wheat is grown and cattle are grazed, according to Umatilla County Planning Department documents. ESI Vansycle Partners has acquired wind-power lease rights to 4,900 acres, but expects to disturb only about 10 of those acres with the turbines and associated infrastructure (such as roads and power lines).

Vansycle Ridge, obviously, is a windy place. How windy? No specific figures were available from the developer; Powell described the local wind resource as "abundant. I don't think we'd be doing it if it wasn't."

A regional wind research cooperative--funded by PacifiCorp, Portland General, the Power Council, BPA, Oregon Office of Energy and EWEB--has measured a long-term annual average wind speed of 17.4 miles per hour at a site in Kennewick at the northern end of the same ridge as Vansycle Ridge, according to cooperative director Stel Walker of Oregon State University. "The winds correlated fairly well . . . except maybe in winter the flow may be different in Vansycle." Walker said Vansycle Ridge is well-positioned for summer winds blowing west from the Columbia River Gorge, as well as storm-driven winds in wintertime coming from a southwesterly direction.

In any case, the wind at Vansycle Ridge is good enough for ESI Energy. Spokesman Dale Thomas told Con.WEB in early 1997 that "ESI's purpose is to invest in renewable energy projects and to make money off of them, obviously. Anything that looks like a good investment . . . this was one of them." He specifically cited the existence of a power-purchase agreement with Portland General.

Thomas in mid-July described ESI Energy as a "fairly well-diversified independent power production company that tends to specialize in clean-fuel technologies." Its portfolio includes geothermal, solar, natural gas, waste-to-energy and wood-burning plants, along with wind. In addition to "sizable projects" in California, ESI is developing wind projects in Michigan, Iowa, Texas and Oregon. Altogther, according to Thomas, the firm's completed and in-development wind projects total more than 1,000 MW of capacity.

Notable Lack of Opposition

In addition to its distinction as the inaugural Northwest commercial-scale wind project, Vansycle Ridge is notable for its apparent lack of opposition--in particular contrast to other proposed wind-energy ventures farther west around the Columbia River Gorge.

When the Umatilla County Planning Commission considered ESI Vansycle Partners' request for a conditional-use permit at a Sept. 25 meeting, no one formally objected to the project, according to a county summary of the meeting. Among those attending were several local residents along with representatives from the Blue Mountain Audubon Society, Oregon State energy and wildlife agencies, and the Renewable Northwest Project. In addition, no opposition emerged in 11 letters previously sent to the planning department.

"There is widespread local and regional support for the project," the planning department concluded in October. "The applicant has taken every opportunity to involve interested parties in the public process and has briefed a number of groups . . . No comments opposing the project have been received to date."

The department cited many positive features about the Vansycle Ridge proposal. Wind energy represents "a source of sustainable, clean electrical power" and a "viable alternative to electric generating plants that burn hydrocarbons such as coal and natural gas." The project will benefit the local economy, through increases in employment, purchasing and property tax revenues. Also, the department said, "The developer has the experience and the financial strength for the project to succeed."

In addition, county planners anticipated only minimal impacts on local farming practices, land-use patterns, scenic values and noise. There are no known Native American cultural resources on the site.

And the project's effects on wildlife and their habitat are envisioned as slight--even for birds. "Compared to other wind energy sites, this area gets relatively little bird use," according to the planning department. An avian study of the area found "relatively few federally listed species and state sensitive species that use the area." A lack of nests indicated "relatively poor habitat (not much prey available in the actively farmed areas)."

Still, to minimize bird injuries and deaths, the county encouraged ESI Vansycle Partners to stick to its plan to place turbines in "downdraft" and not "updraft" areas, and avoid as much as possible creating nesting and perching opportunities for birds on the turbines and power line facilities. An ongoing avian monitoring program is a condition of the county permit.

The Vansycle Ridge project is subject to a host of local, state and federal government standards, according to the county. All necessary permits needed to be approved before the county would allow construction to begin, and they were. Umatilla County planner Bob Perry said the county issued its final conditional-use permit for Vansycle Ridge around April 1 of this year. (King said that the 24.9 MW capacity for the project falls just below the 25-MW threshold that triggers review through Oregon's energy facility siting process .)

More Project Details

The Vansycle Ridge wind plant will consist of 38 separate turbines in two rows; one row will have 28 turbines stretched over three miles, the other 10 turbines over a mile, according to an article in the East Oregonian newspaper.

Each three-bladed turbine will be affixed to a tubular tower mounted on a concrete pad, according to the county planning department. Each turbine measures some 250 feet to the highest point of the blades.

Electricity produced from the turbines will be sent--initially underground, and then through above-ground lines--to a nearby substation located adjacent to an existing Bonneville Power Administration 69-kilovolt transmission line, according to the county planning department. At the substation, power generated from the wind will be stepped up from 34.5 KV to 69 KV and then sent into the Northwest grid.

These particular turbines have been designed and manufactured in Denmark by Vestas, according to Maj-Britt Jensen, the Vansycle Ridge project manager for Vestas-American Wind Technology. She described Vestas as the world's leading wind-turbine manufacturer, with 24 percent of the international market.

The V-47 Vestas turbines going up on Vansycle Ridge represent "the most cost-effective turbine we have," she said. This is their first application in the United States, although there are a number in place in Europe. The "47" refers to the diameter, in meters, of the sweep of the three blades; each blade is 23 meters long. Energy-producing capacity of each turbine is 660 kilowatts.

These are "pitch-regulated turbines," according to Jensen. "That means the blades are able to pivot 90 degrees along their own longitude and axis, so that at low wind speeds we can turn a larger surface up toward the wind and catch the small amount of wind there is. At higher wind speeds," she continued, "we can pivot the blade so that less of the structure is suffering from the load on the turbine." These turbines are designed to produce power at wind speeds ranging from 8 mph to 56 mph.

All 38 turbines are scheduled to be installed by early fall, she noted. ESI's Thomas said the current estimated on-line date is early 1999. The plant must be commercially operable by the end of 1999 as a condition of PGE's power-purchase agreement, according to Arnston.