One of the coolest things about Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse Wind Facility is the drive up to it. You spot the line of turbines on the hill in the distance first, looking like tiny pinwheels. As you drive through the town of Kittitas, they get bigger, and 10 miles down the Vantage Highway bigger still, then finally, as you drive up to the top, the white monoliths show their true size.
When you stand beneath one, you are dwarfed. There are 149 of the giant turbines. Each one is taller than the Statue of Liberty and has a wingspan wider than that of a Boeing 747.
And the sound — it’s nothing like you’d expect. The turbines give off a quiet, solid whoosh like the thrum of an expensive dishwasher, a sound that is oddly reassuring. The wind speed on the day I visited was around 10 miles per hour, but program coordinator Andrea Crawford says at higher speeds, you can’t hear them at all, because the wind becomes louder than the turbines.
Most of the time the wind comes from the west, blasting across the Cascades, gaining speed as it’s funneled from Western Washington through Snoqualmie Pass into Eastern Washington. The peak recorded gust at the site was 117 miles an hour. The Vestas turbines, built in Denmark, were designed to survive 150-mph winds and will shut down power generation at 56 mph to prevent overheating.
A display inside the visitor’s center explains how they stop: “If the wind blows too hard, the blades ‘feather’ or turn inward, reducing their surface area exposed to the wind. This slows or stops the blades from rotating.” There are also disc brakes for emergency stops.
Under 9 mph, the turbines go into low wind idle, which is why you sometimes see turbines in a group spinning at different speeds — because the wind speeds vary across any given ridge.
They are scattered across the top of Whiskey Dick mountain east of Ellensburg. The site is one of the few in the nation with a visitor’s center, which features educational displays and offers free guided tours that include a trip inside the base of a turbine, an opportunity to touch one of the giant blades, and a look inside the gearbox, generator and transformer units that create and step up the power.
You also get panoramic views of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and the Columbia River basin. As an added bonus, in peak wildflower season from April 28 through May 12, you can see scores of brilliantly colored native wildflowers on a special tour and along the winding road up the hill, including lupines, phlox, balsam, and blooming cactus. Wildflowers continue to bloom through June. In winter months, herds of elk roam among the turbines.
The facility, which came on line in 2006, generates enough electricity to power up to 70,000 homes annually, which is 86 percent of all the households in Yakima County.
The project did not require new high-voltage transmission lines. They already ran nearby, making construction far more economically feasible. Wild Horse is the second-largest wind farm in the state. The only one that’s bigger is the Lower Snake River Project in southeast Washington, also owned by PSE. The wind farm along I-90 near Ellensburg is owned by a different company.
Gov. Jay Inslee is running for president on a clean energy platform, but our state has always been ahead of the curve on alternative power sources. Voters passed Initiative 937 in 2006. It requires public and private utilities in the state to provide 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, and PSE says it is on track to meet that goal.
“Washington state has bragging rights,” says Crawford. “Boeing, with the Department of Energy, built the first wind farm in the world. Three turbines near Goldendale in the early 1980s.” They were loud, with lots of vibration. Decades of trial and error have gone into the quieter, cheaper technology of today.
When Vestas built its first turbine in the ‘70s it cost 30 to 40 cents per kilowatt-hour, and now wind power costs between 3 and 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The strongest opposition to the construction of Wild Horse came from a local branch of the Audubon Society, which voiced concern over the impact on raptors, bats and sage grouse.
“We did a plant and wildlife survey, bird survey, and archaeological survey before we even began construction,” says Crawford. They modified the layout to avoid bird nesting sites in a grove of pine trees, and some turbines were placed farther apart to avoid the flight paths of birds of prey.
Some of the power generated at Wild Horse goes directly to customers in Kittitas County and the rest to Wanapum Dam, where it joins the regional grid. PSE has 1.1 million electrical customers, most of them in Washington. “We have some of the cheapest power in the nation,” says Crawford. “We vary between first and second.” Louisiana is currently No. 1.
PSE forecasters predict how much power their customers will use on any given day, then their load office looks at the wind forecast to come up with a plan. They scale back on other power sources as the wind ramps up.
“It’s a constant balancing game,” she says.
Crawford is a CWU grad who loves her job on the top of a mountain, teaching people about wind power and wildflowers.
“It’s not a career I ever thought I’d find myself in, but I find it fascinating to learn about the technology and how it works and how it changes every year,”she says.
Ellensburg is famously windy, and Crawford gets a chuckle out of the fact they’re harnessing it. “We’re using wind for power, which normally is something people complain about!”