Solar Farms Are Booming in Washington State, But Where Should They Go?

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GOLDENDALE, Klickitat County — In September 2018, Russ and Amy Hanson received an unsolicited offer from Invenergy to cover their land near this south central Washington town with solar panels.

They could earn up to $40,000 a year for a quarter-century lease on their 40-acre tract, according to correspondence from the company to the Hansons.

After decades in Western Washington, the Hansons were close to retiring to this area with a spectacular view of snow-capped Mount Adams.

They did not want solar panels out their front door, and turned down the deal.

Last fall, they learned the hilltop site where they planned to build their dream home may still be bordered by a black sea of solar panels ringed by chain link fence. That's because some of their neighbors signed leases with Invenergy and a second company, Cypress Creek Renewables, to develop two separate solar projects that collectively could have a footprint of more than 3,000 acres, according to project documents and correspondence.

The Hansons put their building plans on hold, hired an attorney and joined a local group formed to sound an alarm about large-scale solar development.

"We spend four to five hours a day doing nothing but dealing with solar stuff," said Russ Hanson. "It's been a nightmare."

In March, the group notched a surprising victory as the Klickitat County board of commissioners, which has long welcomed energy development of all kinds, approved in a 2-1 vote a moratorium on permitting solar projects in an area west of Goldendale.

The activists are part of a broader backlash east of the Cascades to a surge in large solar projects  championed by Gov. Jay Inslee as essential to driving the state into a clean-energy future, as required by a 2019 state law. These projects will help redefine the regional power industry as electricity from coal and natural gas are phased out to combat climate change.

But questions of where to put these projects are generating new tensions as solar critics rail against the scope of development required to help fulfill the green vision — most popular west of the Cascades — of a future where almost all electricity comes from renewable sources. Their concerns range from impacts on neighbors' property values and wildlife to the potential for fires should batteries be part of a project.

Solar is buoyed by the rapidly falling cost of photovoltaic panels. So far, more than 20 solar projects covering more than 22,000 acres have been proposed in Washington state, according to a Seattle Times analysis of filings with counties and other documentation. All but one of them would be sited in the sun-drenched eastern portion of the state, including the Horse Heaven Hills project in Benton County, where solar would be combined with wind turbines to create one of the state's biggest renewable energy projects in a decade.

"We are seeing a huge solar buildout," said Ben Kujala, the Northwest Power and Conservation' Council's planning director.

Some residents east of the Cascade crest welcome the fresh opportunities of solar, which can offer lease fees far exceeding the per-acre earnings from ranching and dryland farming. The state's biggest completed solar farm to date, which stretches across more than 200 acres just outside the city limits of Lind in Adams County, went in with scant controversy in 2018.

Opponents have gained the most traction in rural neighborhoods, like the one west of Goldendale near the Hansons' property, where some large farms have been subdivided into smaller tracts of land, attracting an influx of retirees and others who don't want to see nearby landscapes transformed by solar panels.

Fierce debates over solar siting also have erupted in other areas of the country, stretching from Virginia to Indiana to California. During the Trump administration, the former president helped stoke them as he scoffed at climate change, embraced fossil fuels and repeatedly mocked the potential of renewable energy. In the aftermath of a bitterly fought election, these clashes are likely to intensify as President Joe Biden pushes for dramatic increases in solar and wind projects to help the United States meet his pledge of slashing its carbon emissions, over the next nine years, to half of 2005 levels.

In Washington, where counties east of the Cascades voted heavily for Donald Trump in the past two presidential elections, the final say on permitting projects many not lie with local officials. That's because state law gives the option for developers to go through a state council review process that gives the governor the power to green-light energy projects even if county officials are in opposition.

"I understand you want green energy by 2050. But ... you are sure not going to put it in Seattle, Olympia or Tacoma. You don't want it in your backyard. You want it in our backyard," said Dan Christopher, one of the two county commissioners who passed the deciding votes in favor of the Klickitat County permitting moratorium that includes the area west of Goldendale. "And even if we don't want it. You can force it into our backyard."

Klickitat green energy boom

Klickitat County's initial push into renewable energy development came nearly two decades ago amid financial struggles that threatened to shutter a Goldendale-area aluminum smelter, which employed 720 people with family-wage jobs and had been a major county taxpayer.

Dana Peck, a former wind-power developer who then headed Klickitat's economic development department, came up with the idea for an overlay zone. Within this area, solar and wind projects could move ahead with streamlined permitting that would not include public hearings.

"We were grasping at straws looking for what we could do to get the economy going," Peck recalls.

The zone took effect in 2005, two years after the smelter shut down. It covers 57% of the county, and offered a welcome mat for developers at the onset of a Northwest wind-power boom spurred by favorable federal tax credits and state policies encouraging more renewable energy. Today Klickitat has more than 600 turbines.

Avangrid Renewables, a Portland-based part of Iberdrola Group, one of the largest renewable energy developers in the world, built three wind projects in the county. So far, they have resulted in $24 million worth of tax payments and tens of millions of dollars in royalty payments to landowners, according to company officials.

In 2019, Avangrid was the first to announce a move into Klickitat solar development with a project to put more than a half-million solar panels on 1,100 acres in the sparsely populated eastern half of the county.

Avangrid's  project, now under construction, lies entirely within the energy overlay zone in an area where ranchers already have profited from wind turbines on grazing lands, and now stand to make more money on solar that can piggyback along transmission lines.

Last October, Avangrid also secured a lease from the Department of Natural Resources for a 320-acre tract of land in eastern Klickitat for part of a second solar project called Bluebird.

"We have been really successful working with the county," said Brian Walsh, Avangrid's director of business development.

The hot zone

The solar resistance is strongest in the more heavily populated western part of Klickitat, near Goldendale. This is a plateau, where a visitor who drives up out of the Columbia River Gorge, and past the turbines that hang by the rim, reaches an area of wheat fields and pastures bordered by hills and mountains.

On a clear day from some spots you can see not only Mount Adams dominating the horizon but also Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens. Real estate values have surged as new residents are drawn here by the sweeping vistas.

Russ and Amy Hanson purchased two 20-acre tracts more than a decade ago while they still lived in Chehalis in Southwest Washington, where he worked for the State Patrol and she worked in county government.

For years they made weekend forays to their homestead, where they put in fencing and built a barn with a small apartment. They finally moved to Klickitat last June, and hoped to get to work building their retirement home.

The solar companies' interest in the lands around their property has been kindled by the sunshine, which is stronger than in lower elevations of the county where fog is frequent.

More importantly, this area also hosts a Bonneville Power Administration substation that can feed electricity onto a transmission line with plenty of capacity.

These assets make a project more efficient and financially viable, and helped persuade Invenergy and Cypress Creek Renewables to push for development even though portions of their projects would lie outside the energy overlay zone.

Invenergy has yet to file any planning documents with the county.

"We are in very early stages of project consideration so we don't have much to share at this time," a company official said.

But some details have surfaced through their efforts to secure land.

In the 2018 letter to the Hansons, Ken Nichols, Invenergy's manager for renewable development, said the company was in the process of leasing  about 2,400 acres around the substation. Less than a year later, in May 2019, Invenergy successfully bid on 564 acres of Washington Department of Natural Resources land in a lease agreement that would pay $614,000 once operational, with payments rising by 3% annually, according to department officials.

More is known about the Cypress Creek project that would also be located on land near the substation, with about 20% of the acreage outside the energy overlay zone.

The developer has filed preliminary plans that would cover 1,218 acres — about 882 acres of this land would be used for solar arrays, which rise up to 13 feet as they pivot with the movement of the sun. The project also would include batteries — housed at a 2-acre site — that could store some of the power.

"We strive to go above and beyond what is required ... we look forward to engaging with community members to ensure we are able to answer questions and receive feedback," said Tai Wallace, director of development for Cypress Creek Renewables.

To make this project possible, 11 landowners agreed to leases.

They include Carl Conroy, who grows dry land wheat and will cede 200 of his acres to solar panels.

"It's marginal ground, 32 bushels per acre, which is not real great," said Conroy, who lives a few miles away from his farmland. "The sun is a crop and I think we need to harvest it too if we are going to move away from fossil fuels ... Anyone who thinks that the climate isn't changing is crazy and we need to do our part."

Amy and Russ Hanson disagree on climate change. Amy thinks it's a big issue, while Russ is skeptical. They both say they are not against solar development but that it should stay out of areas like their community west of Goldendale.

They found an early ally in Greg Wagner, who came to western Klickitat in 2014 after he got laid off at age 53 from his electrician's job at a Chrysler plant in St. Louis. Last fall, he learned about the plans for a new solar farm behind his house and launched C.E.A.S.E — Citizens Educated About Solar Energy — and has been a tireless organizer as he plants yellow "no solar" signs along roads, hounds local officials for more public disclosure of solar development and organizes weekly informational pickets at the Goldendale post office.

"This is our county and big solar should not dictate what will happen here," Wagner said.

The group also includes some longtime residents such as Elaine Harvey, a Yakama Nation tribal biologist concerned that the solar development on land leased by DNR would harm an area where her family has gathered traditional foods and that it would disrupt wildlife.

DNR officials say they consulted with the Yakama Nation before leasing the land, and no objections were received.

Harvey says she wasn't part of those conversations.

"The birds, you know, hide in the fields," Harvey said. "If there is going to be a bunch of solar, I don't think the hawks will be hiding in them anymore."

Common ground

As the solar boom takes off, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Pasco, Michael Ritter, is scrambling to assess potential effects. He has proposed that some projects be divided into smaller arrays so that there can be more corridors for elk and deer. He also has sought to get fences raised off the ground so that ground squirrels and other small species can scramble through the solar farms. But he says he can only request, not require, such accommodations.

"I am swamped by all the project reviews," Ritter said. "The siting of these facilities is key to habitat and species protection."

In an effort to find more common ground about where to build solar projects, Washington State University, backed by Audubon and the American Farmland Trust, is planning next year to bring together people with a stake in their development. That effort, bolstered by $500,000 in funding approved by the Legislature, is expected to result in a map of the areas of least conflict for solar development. This could help inform county and state officials in permitting decisions.

This is modeled after an outreach effort in California's San Joaquin Valley that — while not eliminating all conflicts — helped to substantially reduce them, according to Terry Watt, a San Francisco-based planning consultant who helped to launch the project.

"Can you work toward something where there is hope, and it's not just all conflict?" Watt said. "Yes, but you have to roll up your sleeves, get people involved and make sure they know that they are heard."

In Klickitat County, the board of commissioners already is embarking on that task.

In a March 16 meeting, the three Klickitat County commissioners wrestled with whether to approve a moratorium on solar development outside the energy overlay zone so they could consider whether new regulations were needed. The pause, which could last up to six months or more, would also include a public hearing.

Commissioner Jacob Anderson was against such a move. He was concerned that the action could prompt developers to go around the county and apply for permitting through the state council that would give Inslee the final say.

"My fear is that the moratorium will actually do the most harm because it will push people through the other process," Adams said.

David Sauter, the board chair, argued that the greatest risk was inaction, and cast the deciding vote to pass the measure.

"I have given this a lot of thought. Lost a lot of sleep over this. We all have," Sauter said.

"I support industrial solar coming to Klickitat County ... But I think there is some discussion about scale and scope. Not the if, but the where."

Comments

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LL Hauer

What a strange, negative slant on a situation with incredible potential for economic growth in much of eastern Washington. Why did the reporter focus on the complaints and unhappiness of the Hansons at the expense of the huge benefits expanded solar energy production could have for farmers and residents in eastern WA? That’s really sad the Hansons’ retirement plans were disrupted. But what about the benefits to the original rural residents in that area? How about the incredible economic potential for distressed towns and counties in that part of the state from growing an economic base on solar and wind energy? This means jobs, a stronger tax base and income! This article seems to be cherry picking reasons to convince us expansion of solar energy is a bad thing and seems backward and upside down to me given the positive potential.

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