“A proposed $1.7 billion wind and solar project generates hopes and fears in South Central Washington state”

Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter

“KENNEWICK, Benton County — Back in March, Chris Wiley passed a long day in his tractor sowing 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.

Controversy erupts 

“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.

“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,

“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. 

“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…”

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