CORVALLIS - Rising electrical power costs coupled with projected future shortages in electricity are giving some Oregon farmer's windy thoughts.
Agriculture's generally low commodity prices are compelling growers to find new ways to keep viable. One idea being tossed about in the breezes is farming the wind for its available energy.
"First of all, it's no big secret, the wind blows here a lot," said Sandy Macnab, an Oregon State University Extension agent in Eastern Oregon's windy Sherman County. "But do we have enough quality and consistent wind to run power turbines?"
Although this is still an unanswered question for Macnab, he sees the potential for growers to make wind power an economic reality. "The opportunity is a real one for landowners here in the Mid-Columbia Basin," he said.
"Wind technology has come a long way and wind machines are bigger, faster and more efficient than they were in past years," Macnab pointed out. "And, where wind machines are established, growers are being paid hefty royalties that are allowing them to continue farming."
Oregon's first wind farm, the Vansycle Ridge Wind Farm in Umatilla County near Pendleton, opened in 1998. Portland General Electric purchases the output from the Vansycle Ridge facility.
"The Vansycle Ridge Wind Farm project cost $35 million," said OSU Extension Regional Director Mike Stoltz, who was an extension agent in Umatilla County during the project's inception.
"Twenty-eight wind turbines went on line in November of 1998," Stoltz said. "Each turbine generates 690 volts of electricity, and the entire project has a capacity to generate 24.9 megawatts, enough electricity to power 6,000 homes."
The developer, Florida Power and Light, pays a royalty to two landowners, said Stoltz.
"Because of OSU Extension stepping in at the early stages of the project as an intermediary and bringing a level of legitimacy to the project, the two landowners signed solid leases," he said.
Macnab said that people seem to remember times when the wind blows hard, but consistency of the wind is necessary to make it an economical reality for growers.
"Height, topography, location and season of the year all affect wind speed, so there are many considerations to make before a wind farm is established on your property," said Macnab. "Today's turbines need winds at about 8 mph to kick in and they can operate in winds up to 65 mph, when safety measures activate to prevent damage."
"However, power generation requires constant levels of wind to be efficient," he added. "Wind powered, energy-generating companies are seeking average wind speeds of about 18 mph."
Energy produced from the wind at a given location can vary substantially over short time periods as the wind itself varies, said Stel Walker of OSU's Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the university's Wind Research Cooperative.
"For wind energy to become a prominent and dependable energy resource in the region, methods are needed to predict these variations better," Walker said. "This is very important in the Pacific Northwest, where the region's complex topography has a strong influence on the strength and variation of the wind."
OSU's Wind Research Cooperative is researching new models to help forecast wind power production at a site up to 48 hours in advance. These models can be used in selecting new sites with wind market potential.
"We know wind turbines can be successfully located on farmland and will provide added income for growers," said Macnab. "But there is still limited information on selecting sites with the best market potential."
"Wind power is clean and compatible with current agricultural production practices," Macnab added. "It is not a threat to the environment and growers can farm around the towers. Plus, we are potentially talking about some nice-sized dollars for farmers. I think within five to 10 years, a number of wind operations will be sited on agricultural land across Oregon."
He does offer a warning to farmers who may be involved: Not all leases are alike.
"We went through this sort of thing in the early 1980's with oil and gas leases," said Macnab. "There is no 'one-size-fits-all' lease for wind power generation either. Every landowner needs to check and compare notes with the neighbors and have a proposed lease scrutinized by legal counsel."