A proposed $1.7 billion wind and solar project generates hopes and fears in South Central Washington state
- May 4, 2021 9:30 am GMTMay 4, 2021 3:01 pm GMT
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May 4—KENNEWICK, Benton County — Back in March, Chris Wiley passed a long day in his tractor sowing winter wheat. He had the controls set to automatic steering and scanned social media. He did not like what he found.
In post after post, people raged about a renewable energy project that would put wind turbines and solar development in the Horse Heaven Hills where he farms. Critics from Pasco, Kennewick and Richland attacked the plan as an outrage that would blemish cherished vistas to the profit of an out-of-state developer looking to export power to Western Washington, Oregon or California.
The project unleashing such passions would be one of the region's largest renewable energy installations of the past decade with an estimated cost of $1.7 billion.
Wiley is a big supporter. It would generate lease fees that would be a financial boon for his family and dozens of other wheat-growing lease holders in a hardscrabble part of South Central Washington where farmers have long struggled to coax profitable yields from the arid land. So, he decided to compose a kind of farmer's manifesto, which he drafted on a keyboard inside the cab while the tractor kept on planting seed.
"This is a community of survivors, forgotten by the world and ever shrinking, but not going anywhere anytime soon. And lately we are feeling rather betrayed by our neighbors in the Tri Cities," Wiley wrote. "Shame on you for condemning construction on a ridge while hoping to someday build a mansion on the very same hill. Shame on you for being this upset about something that, at very most, would be a slight change to your backyard view. Because this same thing would be an absolute, life-changing blessing to your neighboring community."
Wiley's letter, published online and in several newspapers, drew hundreds of responses that offered stark evidence of the fault lines that have opened up in Benton County over this project in the Horse Heaven Hills.
"People were either very supportive or like, 'I hope you go broke and your family starves,' " Wiley said. "I definitely had a target on my back."
The project was put together by Boulder, Colorado-based Scout Clean Energy, which is owned by Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners, a global private equity firm.
As proposed, Scout could erect up to 244 wind turbines spaced across a 24-mile swath of the upper elevations of the Horse Heaven Hills, a long, prominent ridgeline — formed of volcanic basalt — in the Columbia River basin to the south and west of the Tri-Cities. The wind turbines' height, for the preferred model as measured from ground to blade tip, would rise up to 496 feet. Some could tower 671 feet, taller than the Space Needle.
The project also would include several solar sites that could eventually cover more than 6,500 acres, as well as a battery complex to store and then release some electricity in the evening when demand may be stronger. Running at full capacity, the project could produce up to 1,150 megawatts of power. With the up-and-down nature of solar and wind power, the project would operate over the course of a year at well below half that capacity. Still, the output is expected to generate enough electricity for some 275,000 homes.
Proponents say it is the kind of project needed to help Washington meet the requirements of a 2019 law that calls for ending by 2045 electricity production from coal and gas unless some way is found to capture planet-warming carbon emissions.
This epic change is expected to contribute to a regional build-out of tens of thousands of megawatts of new zero-carbon energy generation by midcentury, according to Ben Kujala, director of power planning with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The Scout project does not yet have contracts with utilities that will use the power, but expects to put in bids to deliver electricity to Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric and other regional utilities. The utilities benefit from the region's abundant low-carbon hydropower, but forecast a need for additional renewable resources in the years ahead.
"We have a resource gap. And we want to be part of the puzzle in meeting that," said Javon Smith, a Scout spokesperson.
The project has faced a chilly reception in South Central Washington, a Republican stronghold where many remain skeptical over the urgency of climate change and rallied behind President Donald Trump as he withdrew the nation from the Paris Agreement on climate and sought to revive the coal industry and expand U.S. oil and natural gas production.
Last summer, the Benton County Public Utility District launched an early broadside against the project as Scout Clean Energy was finishing up three years of efforts to reach lease agreements with more than 65 landowners.
The utility district was a participant in an earlier Horse Heaven Hills wind power project, Nine Canyon, that by 2007 included 63 turbines over a 4-mile stretch of the hills' crest. Yet in a policy paper released last fall, the public utility district decried the "industrialization of previously scenic hillsides, canyons and desert vistas in the region," and expressed concern that more wind power could increase the risk of blackouts and suggested that nuclear power was the best way for Washington's power industry to achieve zero-carbon emission.
This year, there have been more attacks on the project.
Some of the most vocal critics include homeowners in newer subdivisions that have been built in the Horse Heaven Hills. Turbines would become part of their views of nearby ridgelines. The Tri-City Herald, in a March 19 editorial, spoke to a broader angst. "The thought of turning our beloved Horse Heaven Hills into a pin cushion for massive wind turbines breaks the hearts of most Tri-Citians," the editorial declared.
Also in March, all three Benton County commissioners declared their opposition to the project, and reported that the majority of more than 400 public comments they received were against the project.
Scout Clean Energy officials note that the company's own surveys — conducted late last year by EMC Research — indicated 54% of Benton County respondents either somewhat or strongly supported the project.
They say the closest turbines to the Tri-Cities will be 4 miles from the nearest suburban development.
"There has been a lot of misinformation about our project, and wind energy in general," Smith said. "It has been a battle through the pandemic to get out and talk to the community about this."
Scout's relationship with local governments in the Tri-Cities has been further strained by the company's decision to bypass the Benton County permitting process and instead go through a state process. The state's Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council makes a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee about whether to approve the project, and the governor then gets the final say.
The council review is likely to take a year or longer. An initial online public meeting in March was somewhat chaotic as some participants kept open microphones, and repeatedly made off-the-cuff comments.
During the hearing, union members who would help build the project were among those who testified in favor.
Those who spoke in opposition included Benton County Commissioner Will McKay, who called it "inconsistent with preserving the natural setting views and rich history of Benton County and the greater Tri-Cities area." He was allowed a brief two-minute time slot to speak, the same as more than 60 other members of the public signed up to voice their views. When he tried to go longer, he was cut off in midsentence.
"OK, I've muted Commissioner McKay's microphone. His comment time is over," declared state Administrative Law Judge Adam Torem, who struggled to keep order.
New generation of turbines
Scout is willing to invest $1.7 billion in this project due to the economic potential of the winds that blow across the hills. Driven by storms, they funnel along the Columbia River — and then are intensified as they reach the ridgelines. Unlike those farther west in the Columbia River Gorge, they are strongest in the winter when Northwest utilities have the biggest need for power.
Some of the top sites for turbines already are claimed by the completed Nine Canyon project. But a new generation of turbines is able to make better use of the wind in other parts of the hills, and support a project that Scout Clean Energy officials are convinced can turn a profit.
"It's the technological advance that's making this all happen," said Dave Kobus, Scout's project manager. "The market is evolving so fast that if you are not negotiating with turbine manufacturers now, you don't know how good these turbines are."
Kobus, a former nuclear power plant worker, has deep knowledge of the winds that blow across the Horse Heaven Hills. While working at Richland-based Energy Northwest, he helped put together the Nine Canyon project, and has built upon that experience to help piece together a siting plan for Scout Clean Energy.
Typically, a wind turbine is considered reasonably efficient if it is able to produce through the course of a year 30% of its maximum generating capacity. Kobus says that the designs of new turbines will enable this project to produce more than that.
"I can't really tell you how much better because that's our proprietary edge," Kobus said.
The big expansion of turbines, coupled with big solar development, has raised concern about wildlife. Songbirds and sandhill cranes by the thousands migrate across the hills. Burrowing owls, kestrels, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and the threatened ferruginous hawks all are found flying the thermals over the ridgelines. Some use the cliffs as nesting habitat and forage on mice and other rodents they find in the wheat fields or canyons, according to Lisa Fitzner, a former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist who worked in Benton County and submitted comments to the commission that requested years of site studies before moving ahead with the project.
Michael Ritter, a Pasco-based WDFW biologist who reviews wind and solar plans, has already offered a bleak assessment of the project's "land scale" impacts. During the public hearing held by the state commission, he said they "will be difficult if not impossible to mitigate," in an area that contains some of "the last remaining functional and uninterrupted shrub-steppe and natural grasslands in Benton County."
Project proponents say that extensive development of wind turbines east of the Cascades in both Oregon and Washington has not had a disastrous impact on wildlife. They cite a 2011 review of 6,700 megawatts of Columbia Basin wind power development — authored by Western Ecosystems Technology — to assess the cumulative impacts on birds and bats. The study estimated more than 15,000 birds of some 98 species died each year from the Columbia basin turbines, including more than 530 raptors.
Yet for the raptors that suffered the greatest turbine mortality, kestrels and red-tailed hawks, the report found the overall impact of the deaths caused by turbines "is likely insignificant from a population standpoint."
The report also noted an Eastern Washington study found that some species of raptors continued to nest in areas after wind turbines were installed nearby.
Kobus says that most of the turbines, wind panels and other development will be placed on farmland, not native undisturbed acreage, and accuses Ritter of a "rush to judgment."
Ritter says that wildlife deaths from turbines and other project development may not make a regional impact on wildlife populations, but could result in the localized loss of some species.
Dryland wheat farmers see boon
For dryland wheat farms of the Horse Heaven Hills, the wind has long been more of an enemy than an ally. Through the decades, the wind has generated dust storms that blow the soil — so vital to their livelihoods — away.
To protect the fields from the wind, Wiley's family has invested in expensive no-till equipment that allows them to forgo plowing and seed directly into the past year's wheat stubble.
Still, the scant rainfall, an average of only 8 inches a year, limits yields. Even in a good year, they may be less than half that of the Palouse lands to the east and bring in — before expenses — only about $400 an acre even in good years when prices are strong and the weather cooperates.
"You don't break even every year. And so you have to be very good at planning ahead ... and making sure that your good years outweigh your bad years. It's stressful," Wiley said.
The lease fees a Horse Heaven Hills farmer could earn from wind turbines are confidential. Elsewhere in Washington, the lease payments, tied to a percentage of power generation revenue, may range from $12,000 to more than $18,000 annually for each turbine, according to industry sources.
Wiley is a fourth-generation farmer on the hills, who now lives in the small house his great-grandfather purchased in 1946 when he moved to the area from Dayton, Columbia County.
More than a decade ago, when Wiley was still in middle school, prospective wind developers talked to his family about putting turbines on some of their 5,000 acres. Eventually, his grandfather signed an agreement. But the prospect of new revenue from the wind appeared to be a pipe dream as years rolled by, and no project ever got started.
Three years ago, Scout Clean Energy took interest in the hills and began reaching out to landowners.
A few wanted nothing to do with wind turbines, and spurned the company's offers, according to Kobus.
But over time, the company secured lease agreements with some three dozen landowners, including three from the Wiley family whose acreage — if the project is approved — is likely to hold several turbines, and a portion of a solar installation, Kobus said.
Wiley knows the views around his farmland are going to change. The field right by his house would be full of solar panels. But he accepts those changes for a project that will bring his family a new prosperity.
"In this neck of the woods, retirement isn't a very common word," he said. "A lot of people work until they die."
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