County sees green in energy, revenue prospects

Administrator, board consider wind, water as source of energy and county money

January 11, 2006

Hood River County could offset some of its operating costs — and pursue new economic goals — by getting into the renewable energy business.

A nine-member central steering committee is being formed to explore all of the available options. The county is seeking people who either have knowledge or expertise in wind, hydro or biomass production.

“Right now we are putting all our revenue eggs in the county forestry basket so we want to diversify,” said Dave Meriwether, county administrator.

He said it has become a top goal of the county board to find alternate revenue sources. And small-scale generation of wind or hydro power — 10 megawatts or less — is a prospective source of income. Also under consideration will be a biomass plant, but Meriwether doubts the feasibility of that project. He said the county would have to find an alternate source of salvage wood to keep it up and running.

However, he said wind turbines could be erected somewhere on the 30,000 acres of county forest land. Or property could be acquired along the Hood River to erect a small hydroelectric dam.

Meriwether said sub-committees will be formed at a later date to thoroughly research each of these options.

Meanwhile, the steering committee will study the regulations involved in renewable energy, the costs and what state and federal startup funds might be available.

“Realistically, it will probably be two years before we get the numbers crunched and get something up and running,” said Meriwether.

In 2004, the county began entertaining the possibility of producing power for income.

The general budget was being held steady by not replacing employees who left and consolidating departments.

But money was growing increasingly tight for extra projects, such as establishing bicycle lanes along public rights of way throughout the county.

To preserve its potential business interests, the county urged the Oregon Public Utility Commission to protect the renewable energy market. At that time, large electric companies throughout the state had asked the PUC to reduce the price they paid to small power producers.

Since the 1980s, independent operators, such as Farmers and Middle Fork irrigation districts, have been allowed to sell power at a higher price.

The reasoning behind the added cost was that these small operations were expensive to establish but were needed to help meet the growing demand for new energy sources.

In 2004, Hood River County contributed $2,500 to a funding pool from Oregon’s counties to foot the bill for $20,000-$30,000 of expert testimony that would back up its case.

Local governments wanted to stop a price reduction from the existing 10 cents to 2-3 cents per kilowatt, which would make small projects unaffordable. Eventually, the PUC reached a compromise rate of about six cents per kilowatt.

Meriwether said that amount would still add money, even after expenses, to the annual $28 million budget. About $4 million of the county’s working capital is derived from timber receipts on the lands it manages for harvests.

If the county can generate more revenue, Meriwether said it will be possible to establish more affordable housing opportunities for middle income residents.

In addition, he said new jobs can be created by expanding the existing industrial land base.

“We have no way to pay for these extra goals without additional funding,” he said.

In addition, he said the county would be helping the environment with greater use of “green power.” Meriwether said the expansion of renewable energy decreased America’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Since Pacific Power & Light has transmission lines running through the area, he said the county can get its power into the grid. However, Meriwether said there are many questions that need to be addressed before the actual viability of the business venture is known.

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Individuals interested in serving on the steering committee are invited to call 386-3970 for more information.

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