Wind energy an untapped resource on Palouse


Palouse Wind, the wind farm on U.S. Route 195, generates almost enough energy to power a city the size of Pullman.

REBECCA WHITE, Evergreen assistant news editor

Wind power on the Palouse, a long-unused resource, has become part of a broader network of alternative energy.

Palouse Wind, the region’s first wind farm, was built in 2012 and consists of 58 wind turbines. Located between Steptoe and Rosalia on U.S. Route 195, the farm generates enough energy to almost meet the needs of a city the size of Pullman.

“We are utilizing a resource that, before, went untapped,” said Shawn Elston, a senior wind farm support specialist for First Wind, the company behind Palouse Wind. “Before this windfarm was here, the wind blowing across was probably nothing more than a nuisance to the farmers. We were able to take that resource that was literally going to waste every day and put it to a productive use for society.”

Elston said the farm typically uses 5 percent of the land area, while the land owner retains the other 95 percent of their acreage to continue using. Land owners also receive a new consistent source of revenue by having wind turbines on their property.

He said that while energy sources like coal are initially cheaper than wind power, they are much more expensive after factoring in the cost of environmental damage and disposal of byproducts.

“As far as wind or solar goes, right now renewable energy is very cost competitive,” Elston said. “We have a choice as a society on how we’re going to generate our power and where we’re going to get that power from.”

Wind towers, aside from biannual inspections and occasional repairs, are mostly self-sufficient. Windmills have built-in software that controls the day-to-day operations, Elston said.

The way a wind turbine functions is similar to the wings of an aircraft. Kinetic energy comes up against the blades, generating lift and turning that energy into mechanical energy. That mechanical energy is turned into electricity by a shaft and rotor which is connected to a generator.

Wind turbines also have sensors on top of their towers, allowing them to always measure the speed of wind and direction its coming from. The wind turbines will turn on when the wind is at a speed of 6.7 mph and start producing electrical energy. As the wind increases, the power increases.

When the wind hits 20 mph, the turbine is at full production, which means it is producing 1815 kilowatts per hour. It will continue to produce that power until the wind hits 44 mph, where it will shut down to protect its mechanical components.

All the power generated from these wind turbines goes into the Avista Utilities system. John Lyons, Avista senior resource policy analyst, said Avista does not plan to invest in wind energy in the Palouse area beyond the already established wind farm.

“We won’t build more unless the legislature changes the rules,” Lyons said. “Other companies may build here because there are some good winds, but Avista does not intend to.”

Washington has renewable energy portfolio standards for utility companies which require companies with more than 25,000 customers, such as Avista, to take 9 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2016 and 15 percent by 2020, according to the Washington State Department of Commerce’s website.

Lyons said that including the Palouse wind farm, Avista already has enough resources in place to meet their portfolio standards goals until 2030.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, the state of Oregon has enacted a portfolio standard which requires 25 percent of their energy to come from renewables by 2025, while California requires 50 percent by 2030. Idaho does not have a renewable energy target or standard.

“In the U.S., we don’t have a consistent government policy that says renewable energy is important,” Elston said. “Ours is better than Idaho’s at zero percent, but 15 is certainly nowhere near as high as our neighbors to the south.”