Take a Power Trip to Wild Horse Wind Farm

The Wild Horse wind farm near Ellensburg turns a small-town road trip into an eco-educational advent
Cody Bay  |   May 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Each one of the 149 turbines at the Wild Horse wind farm outside Ellensburg produces enough energy to power 450 homes

From the moment they come into view as you climb the rolling hills just east of Ellensburg, what strikes you first about the turbines of the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility is their scale. Structures that looked like tiny black pinwheels on toothpicks stuck into the dry earth from just a few short miles away quickly grow into towering white giants that make you feel like a shrunken Alice after a sip from the bottle. You don’t realize how awesome it is to stand underneath one until you’re there.

And then comes the sound. Step out of your car and you’ll hear the soft, repetitive swoosh...swoosh..., the low, hollow rhythm of a 7-ton blade slicing through the air. Many in the area speak of these sleek and slender energy collectors almost reverentially; for the rural and small-town populations of Kittitas County living in their vicinity, the turbines have a way of taking on a life of their own, much like the orange steel cranes dotting the Port of Seattle seem like giant industrial dinosaurs lording over their container minions below. A detour from a small-town road trip along the Interstate 90 corridor or from nearby Ellensburg is like a trip to another world indeed.

“I hear people say they feel like they’re on a different planet,” says Adam Crawford, community service coordinator for Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which operates the wind farm. “When I first saw [the wind turbines], I remember just staring up, trying to understand the scale of the things.”

The power one senses in their presence is not some imagined, anthropomorphized idea; from each one of these 149 wind turbines comes enough energy to power an average of 450 homes—about 70,000 homes in total—most of which are in the Puget Sound region. According to PSE, the 11,000-acre project is a rarity; at the time it was built, it was the only wind farm in the nation with a visitors center. And there’s nothing like a visit on a blustery day—which is nearly every day, along the windswept ridge tops of Whiskey Dick Mountain in the Wenatchee range—to gain a sense of the state-of-the-art ways in which energy providers are harnessing renewable resources to keep our lights on—and experience something hypnotically cool to boot.

The visitors center offers a 360-degree view of three mountains

Wild Horse was created in 2005, the year before state Initiative 937 passed, requiring large utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Whiskey Dick Mountain, a sagebrush-spackled wildlife area about 16 miles east of Ellensburg, was an ideal location; there, winds barrel through at up to 117 miles an hour. And with sunshine levels comparable to Houston—with more than 300 days of rays per year—it seemed only logical to add solar panels as well, to create what PSE says is the only combined wind and solar facility in the U.S.

Each enormous turbine pillar is buried in up to 32 feet of cement. Underneath the ground stretch some 90 miles of cables connecting the turbines to a substation plant down the hill; overhead, there are 8 miles of transmission lines. These lines and cables cost $1.4 million per mile to install. From base to extended tip, each turbine stands taller than the Statue of Liberty; each rotor blade is longer than the wing of a 747.

A visit to the farm, which offers free tours twice daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. from April through November, will score you all sorts of fascinating facts, plus entry into the inside of a turbine, where flickering control panels communicate with the sensors and generator housed in the turbine’s upper section. To get within 300 feet of the turbines, you must be accompanied by a guide, and wear a hard hat, utility goggles and closed-toed shoes year-round. (Some days, tours are suspended to protect visitors from so-called “ice throw,” frozen chunks that can collect on the blades and get hurled downward.) As you watch the blades spanned across your vision, windmilling in and out of synchronization, you find out that what appears to be moving about as fast as a lazy carousel ride is actually tearing through the air at 150 miles per hour.

Wild Horse opened its visitors center, called the Renewable Energy Center, in April, 2008. The LEED-certified, glass-walled structure, which offers a 360-degree panoramic view that includes Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood and the Columbia River Basin, is a welcome and necessary part of fostering an ecotourism industry around such places. Build it, though, and they do indeed come: The center consistently boasts 20,000 visitors a year. “We get everyone from school groups, Girl Scouts and Boeing engineers to the Red Hat Society ladies and parents who have to come because their kids rave about it,” says Wild Horse guide Leslie Berry.

There are 20 wind farms in the state; with the help of the two others run by PSE—one at Hopkins Ridge in Columbia County, and its most recent and largest, the Lower Snake River project in Garfield County—the utility is on track to meet its 2020 goal, currently collecting about 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The megawatts from Wild Horse and its ilk get mixed together with those from hydropower, nuclear, natural gas and coal. Leave the wind farm and know this: The next time you feel its power, it won’t be so unbridled, but tame and comforting, like the warm glow of your porch light at home. 

There are a total of 20 wind farms stretching across the southern half of Washington state, run by both public and private entities. For a complete list and more details, visit the Renewable Northwest Project at rnp.org.

Stay Over in Ellensburg

The August rodeo isn’t the only thing the central Washington town has going for it; a night in Ellensburg can be a pleasant getaway any time of the year. A two-hour drive from Seattle takes you to a sleepy college town brimming with Old West historical charm. Combine a visit to the Wild Horse Wind Farm with the great hiking, fishing and bird-watching in the area, or hit one of the annual events: the Ellensburg Wine Festival in May, Dachshunds on Parade in June or the Whisky Dick Triathlon at the end of July.

Where to stay: Make your reservation early to secure one of the two rooms available at Guesthouse Ellensburg, a restored Victorian home in the heart of historical downtown that also houses a lower-level wine bar and shop with tasting events on most days. 606 N Main St.; 509.962.3706; guesthouseellensburg.com

Where to eat: For fare from local farmers, JJ’s on Main (412 N Main St.; 509.962. 2468; jjsonmain.com) serves dinner and weekend brunch. The best martini in town is served at the Starlight Lounge (402 N Pearl St.; 509.962.6100), and the Yellow Church Cafe (111 S Pearl St.; 509.933.2233; yellowchurchcafe.com) draws its own brand of worshippers with hearty weekend breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Or do as the locals do and head to The Tav (117 W Fourth Ave.; 509.925.3939), where there’s usually a game on the tube and a burger calling your name.

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