While most of the power-strapped West looks toward fossil fuels for relief, wind power has quietly swept onto the energy playing field as a viable alternative.
Next month, on the Oregon-Washington border, construction will begin on the world's largest wind farm, where 450 windmills will churn out enough power for 70,000 homes. PacifiCorp, an Oregon-based utility, has agreed to buy all of the power from the facility for the next 25 years.
The project isn't expected to be up and running until the end of the year, so it won't be able to ease the West's energy crunch this winter. But supporters of the project say the wind farm near Walla Walla, Wash., will go a long way toward providing a reliable, renewable energy source for the future.
"It's a spectacular breakthrough for Northwest wind power and cause for celebration among friends of sustainable energy development everywhere," says Ralph Cavanagh of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Announcement of the wind farm - called the Stateline Wind Generating Project - comes at a particularly significant moment. The West Coast is buckling under a power shortage and skyrocketing prices, largely because of California's deregulated energy market, increased demand and a supply shortfall. Government officials are calling for aggressive conservation and more generating plants.
PacifiCorp and FPL Energy of Florida, which will build and operate the wind farm, say the project has been in the works for more than a year, and the timing is purely coincidental. Still, the new wind project packs an extra punch because of the existing power problems.
"All of that high-priced natural gas really makes wind look good," says Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a nonprofit group that pushes for sustainable energy sources like wind, geothermal and solar. She calls the project "a smart business decision to go with stable-priced, indigenous, renewable resources."
Wind power has been the focus of experiments in the Northwest for decades. There are some smaller wind farms in operation, and last September the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council announced a joint venture with SeaWest WindPower Inc., to build a 22 megawatt facility on tribal land in northwest Montana. But none can match the scale and energy-creating potential of the Stateline farm. With the ability to generate 300 megawatts of power, it stands to forge its own niche in PacifiCorp's market and help put wind power on the map in the Northwest.
"This is wind power on a grand scale," says Terry Hudgens, president of PacifiCorp's power marketing arm.
The technology will also be different. Past wind farms used the old-style turbines that had smaller, rapidly spinning blades, which often killed scores of birds. The Stateline farm will have slow-moving, 150-foot blades, and technology that makes adjustments for wind speed and direction.
While utilities scramble to get new fossil fuel plants on line, which could take years, the Stateline project should start sending electricity to the grid by the end of 2001. The wind power will be merged with energy from the Northwest's hydroelectric dams and be sold in the 11 Western states - Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming and Utah.
Shimshak hopes the new farm will spark other renewable energy projects - and prompt utility companies to reduce their emphasis on fossil fuels. There are a handful of sustainable energy proposals under development in the Northwest, she says, but it's not enough.
"We're making progress, but we've got to keep looking at the bigger picture," she says.
PacifiCorp officials seem to agree. Utilities can no longer afford to rely on single sources of energy, spokesman Dave Kvamme says. "Diversity of new sources is what's called for."