Farming the sky

Ah… the sound of the wind as it rustles leaves, sways tree branches and orchestrates melodies on decorative chimes. Sometimes fierce and sometimes subtle, this element fills sails. It symbolizes change. It means business.

Windmills, historically common fixtures of countryside landscapes all over the world, have serviced single homes and farms for centuries. Pumping water or milling grain, these infamous symbols of agriculture use the wind to get the job done.

Wind turbines, first entering the history books in 1887, were built to produce—then “bank” electricity—a storable commodity that would help power the needs of entire communities. Talk about an industrial revolution!

Harvesting the wind

About 16 miles east of the city of Ellensburg, in view of I 90, I found Wild Horse Wind Facility. Surrounded by hills and sage brush—and wind—this PSE location collects electricity from 149 wind turbines.

I timed my visit to the facility’s Renewable Energy Center for the 10:00 am tour. Free to the public—my favorite price!—our guide walked us through the informational displays inside the center before we stepped outside.

All “dolled up” in our hard hats and protective eyewear, we made our way to an area just behind the building where we found wind turbine components (conveniently located at ground level for tour purposes) and solar panels. Wait—what? Solar panels?

Focusing on not just one but two forms of renewable energy resources, Wild Horse uses electricity generated by these panels to power all of PSE’s facilities on this 10,880 acre property.

Time for a pop quiz! How tall is each Wild Horse wind turbine?

  • 132 feet
  • 287 feet
  • 351 feet

Answer: holding three blades measuring 128 feet each, the turbine itself measures 351 feet high. That’s about as tall as a 32 story building! The Vestas V80 Megawatt Wind Turbine needs a wind speed between 9-56 MPH to produce electricity. (To conserve its own energy, the turbine powers down and the blades stop in low or no wind.)

Pitching and turning to accommodate wind speed and direction, each turbine generates enough electricity to power—on the average—400 homes. If the wind speed is at least 28 MPH, 1200 homes would receive this resource.

Approaching #C2—the tour’s designated turbine on the property—I realized that the sound produced by each wind machine was little more than a hum. According to our guide, only about 50 decibels each. In terms of audibility, it was like walking among a row of very quiet automatic dishwashers.

However, what truly impressed me on the tour was learning just how much PSE puts into studying the area. Wildlife (in the air and on the ground), the terrain, local farms and ranches—even cultural and historical aspects of this place—are researched and honored when determining design and placement of equipment and other facilities.

For example, local tribes have access to roots dug for culinary and ceremonial or medicinal purposes. Understanding the flight path of birds and bats helps PSE with placement of the turbines, keeping the avian mortality rate from such devices the lowest in the country. In fact, the greatest nemesis for birds in our nation is not a wind turbine. Cats, buildings and cars win that unfortunate statistic.

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Inexpensive, generating electricity via the wind is pennies per kilowatt; it’s a little cheaper than solar generated electricity. Renewable and efficient too…

Milling the grain

Taking a step back in time, my next power stop was just a few miles away in the little town of Thorp. At the Thorp Grist Mill, a national historic landmark, I discovered another clean-energy way to generate electricity. In the 1880s, a water turbine at this mill did more than turn wheat into flour. It also provided this town with electricity; one of the first towns in Central Washington to benefit from such a resource.

By the way, do you know how flour is made? At this mill, grain entered at ground level, rode in small buckets attached to conveyor belts all the way to the third floor, then was dumped into chutes, making its way to the lower floors. Machines resembling large wooden cabinets broke apart the husks, then milled the kernels multiple times until they became the consistency of, well… flour.

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Enjoying the bounty

Ready to enjoy fresh and local produce and baked goods—a little something the nearby wind farm helped make? I was! My last stop for the afternoon: the Thorp Fruit and Antique Mall. It’s a big produce stand that’s kind of hard to miss…

Three floors of local treasures: fruits and veggies great you as you walk in the entrance, taking up most of the space on level 1. Also on that same floor, you’ll find a wine section (Washington state, in case you don’t already know, is the second largest producer of premium wines in the nation), along with other gourmet local items, and an espresso counter. Coffee break time for me!

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The two upstairs floors feature items any antique or vintage shopper would gladly peruse. Very walkable with plenty of natural light, this country store is an easy place to shop. Too easy…

As I made my way home, I saw these renewable resources in a whole new light. I’ve always appreciated clean, efficient ways to power our world, but knowing the harmony PSE—this local company—pursues in caring for its physical place on the map (and the surrounding communities), makes me feel a little better about our corner of the world.

It takes a lot to keep the lights on. Nice to know the impact of wind farming on our world, helping with electricity and more, is a positive one. J 🌬

 

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