With two green energy projects in the works within 15 miles of each other in south Thurston and north Lewis counties, community leaders see Lewis County transitioning from a coal community to a hub of green energy generation.
“I think it puts us on the map and it helps TransAlta move from fossil fuel, and although Tono Solar is in Thurston county, it’s right next to us,” Lewis County Commission Chairwoman Edna Fund said Monday, moments after the Board of Lewis County Commissioners voted to approve a resolution making the county the lead agency on the State Environmental Policy Act review process for the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project. That project would place 38 wind turbines, a transmission line and related facilities on Weyerhaeuser land in Lewis County.
As the wind farm project takes on the last hurdles before construction can begin, TransAlta announced last week its intention to build a nearly 1,000-acre solar farm on the former site of the town of Tono and TransAlta’s coal mine in south Thurston County, located between Centralia and Bucoda. The site could produce 180 megawatts of electricity.
“I just think we’re sitting in the right spot at the right time to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy,” said Bob Guenther, a Lewis County resident active in groups including the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council, Lewis County Economic Development Council and the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council.
Guenther noted the solar farm is estimated to generate 300 construction jobs, but only about four permanent positions.
“If you think about the numbers of folks that you know in this county that drive out of the county for building and construction jobs, north or south, those folks won’t have to drive,” he said. “Same thing for the wind turbines. We’re hoping organized labor can provide construction folks for that.”
RES-Americas’ original request for the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project was to build a 51-turbine wind farm on land in Thurston and Lewis County. However, the project recently scrapped the Thurston County turbines, leaving 38 on land in Lewis County.
Sean Bell, senior development manager of RES-Americas, told The Chronicle Monday the decision was mainly due to concerns about flight patterns from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“Previously Thurston County agreed to be the lead on SEPA,” said Community Development Director Lee Napier Monday when presenting the memorandum of understanding to the BOCC.
Now that none of the turbines will actually be in Thurston County, Lewis County will be the lead agency for the environmental review process.
“It’s definitely delayed us,” Bell said, of the switch in lead agencies.
RES-Americas has completed an Environmental Impact Statement, a vital step in the SEPA process. The next step, he said, is for Lewis County to issue a “determination of significance,” then use the already completed EIS to complete the SEPA review.
Once that is done, the project will need a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources to use and modify existing infrastructure, such as roads, leading to the proposed wind farm.
Bell said the wind farm is an “anchor” project for a larger initiative from Puget Sound Energy called “Green Direct,” which he said is intended to provide green power to large clients.
“It’s cliche but kind of the tip of the iceberg,” he said, of the Lewis County project.
Similarly, TransAlta has described its project as the “spearpoint” of the Calgary-based company’s plans for Southwest Washington, saying Centralia will be the company’s long-term U.S. base.
“It just is a good indicator of the future for us,” Fund said.