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Wind prospecting in the Northwest

(Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press, 02/09/04: EAST WENATCHEE, Wash:

Mike Sachs lacks the rusted tin pans of a mineral prospector in the Old West.

But the third generation cattleman in north-central Washington is a prospector in his own right - one of a growing number of ranchers hoping to strike gold with the hottest new resource in the Northwest: wind.

"You're trying to find ways to diversify," Sachs said. "Monetarily, you're usually asset rich and cash poor. But we all benefit if we can generate electricity and keep rates down."

Wind energy accounts for less than 1 percent of the power generated in the United States annually. Turbines in 30 states produced 6,370 megawatts in 2003 - enough power to serve more than 1 million average homes, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

California leads the nation with more than 2,000 megawatts of power generated by wind, followed by Texas, Minnesota and Iowa.

States in the Northwest trail far behind, but that also means many areas are largely untapped. Utilities, consultants and ranchers are taking note, scattering anemometers across the landscape to prospect for wind.

Dozens of new wind projects are proposed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

"We've got a lot of open space in the Northwest," said Rachel Shimshak, director of the Renewable Northwest Project, which promotes solar, wind and geothermal energy resources in the Northwest.

"Wind power has been a great benefit to rural communities and the rural economy. Never mind that it's helping to provide energy production and clean air," Shimshak said.

Renewable energy also shouldn't be foreign to a region that relies on hydropower - water - for most of its energy, she said.

Some call wind energy the perfect complement to dams, because utilities could scale back on one side when the winds pick up and rely more on hydropower when the winds die down.

Wind farms don't come without their share of problems, though. They, too, require a transmission line, which is often unavailable in rural areas. Critics argue wind farms kill too many birds and disrupt wildlife habitats.

Even those in the industry sometimes say the cost isn't worth the return. Wind farms require strong and sustained winds - but not too heavy - over time to be productive.

Still, some of the most outspoken supporters are ranchers across the West who have been struggling to maintain their rural way of life - and stand to gain from having a wind farm on their property.

"In today's society, you've got to be really creative to make a 2,000-acre dryland wheat operation work," said Ron Lewis, a fifth-generation rancher in rural Douglas County. "I'm going into the past - I'm farming like my great-great-grandpa. I'm going to harness the wind like him, because I'm going to be really productive."

Lewis first broached the idea of pursuing wind energy with the Douglas County Public Utility District. He got them excited enough that after researching the idea, utility officials approached 150 landowners about signing three-year land leases to prospect for wind.

Lewis didn't sign. Instead, the self-described maverick went out on his own, recruiting private investors and consultants to prospect for wind on his property, which is the highest point in Douglas County.

"It's tremendously competitive," he said. "Who knows if we're going to be able to do anything up here? But hopefully, we're going to be able to bring some prosperity to the local rural community."

Sachs, who also raises dryland wheat along with his cattle on 12,000 acres of high desert scrubland, signed one of those leases. It expires this summer, though, and he still hasn't heard if his ranch is ideal for a wind farm.

"As a property owner, I wouldn't hesitate to put up a wind generator," said Sachs, whose closest neighbors are 12 miles away. "They pay off in eight to 10 years. And it's better than telling the bank, 'I really need this $200,000 combine, but I don't know how we're going to pay for it."'