Environmental Questions Await Proposed Solar Farm
by John Stang
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 9, 2009
A proposed Kittitas County solar power plant faces some environmental questions.
The county government is asking some of them.
So is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Ditto with a fledgling citizens' group.
The Teanaway Solar Reserve is working on providing answers to many environment-oriented questions about its plan to build a several-hundred-acre complex in the forest four miles from Cle Elum to convert sunlight into electricity.
"It's a routine part of the permitting process," said the project's spokesman Matt Steuerwalt.
Teanaway Solar Reserve hopes to begin construction in the spring of 2010, installing 400,000 photovoltaic panels and support buildings and equipment on the site by the fall of 2011 at the earliest. The project's plans indicate construction -- employing up to 225 people -- could last until late 2012.
The solar plant is supposed to generate 75 megawatts in direct current, which will have to be converted to 73 megawatts in alternating current to join the Northwest power grid.
Teanaway Solar Reserve has put a $300 million price tag on the building the complex. However, Northwest Power and Conservation Council formulas predict that the cost would be more likely $525 million to $750 million.
The venture is seeking a conditional-use permit from Kittitas County to build the complex.
Last Friday, the county's community development department sent a letter to the project's engineering firm, CH2M Hill, to provide more detailed information on the venture.
The letter seeks more information on the layout of the site's buildings and electrical equipment, water runoff, erosion, noise, lights, the ecological impacts of the transmission lines that go to the regional power grid, and whether an existing access bridge can handle increased construction traffic.
The county set a Feb. 2 deadline to receive the new information.
After that, the county government will set up public hearings and other reviews.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has similar questions.
"We're concerned about some of the potential impacts," said Perry Harvester, the department's regional habitat program manager for that area.
The solar farm area has some streams with steelhead, spring chinook salmon, bull trout and other fish. It is also home to deer, elk, bears, cougars and other critters.
Last January, heavy runoff washed out some area roads.
Harvester said the state wants more information on the site's size, configuration, the amount of water-impervious surfaces, how the runoff and erosion might affect streams, how many of the trees will be cleared, how the firebreaks will be set up, and possible herbicide uses, among other items.
The state plans to meet soon with the Teanaway project's representatives to discuss those questions.
Meanwhile, a Kittitas County citizens group is also raising concerns about the project.
The Friends of the Teanaway River Valley was originally formed to opposed a stalled effort by the Ellensburg-based American Forest Land Co. to put some homes in that area. American Forest owns or manages roughly 46,000 acres there.
American Forest has also offered to lease roughly 900 acres to the solar project, reported the Ellensburg Daily Record. Consequently, the Friends of the Teanaway group has shifted its attention to the solar farm proposal, said Jim Brose, a leader of the group.
The group believes a full-fledged environmental study is needed before the county commissioners can decide whether to approve the project.
"They're trying to push this thing through in a relatively short period of time. ... We're not against solar power. We're just questioning where it is going. We just want to make sure everything is looked at as it's supposed to be, and is not rushed," Brose said.
The group echoes other concerns about a massive collection of solar panels in a forest with heavy snowfalls and water runoff, Brose said. The group also is concerned about how a cleared-out site filled with solar panels will affect views in the forest.
Brose said the group has 20 to 40 members with many having homes near the solar farm's site.
The solar-power facility is predicted to provide enough electricity for 45,000 homes. This will be the venture's first photovoltaic plant.
In comparison, the Bonneville Dam near Portland produces 1,050 megawatts. The Columbia Generating Station nuclear reactor provides 1,150 megawatts. Near Walla Walla, 454 wind turbines create 104 megawatts.
The world's biggest solar power plant produces 64 megawatts in Nevada. At least four solar plants -- ranging from 230 megawatts to 600 megawatts - are on the drawing board to be built in California, Nevada and New Mexico in the next few years.
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