Farming Concerns Arise at Horse Heaven
by Don Jenkins
The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council opened hearings Monday on the Horse Heaven wind and solar project in southeast Washington, as witnesses disagreed on whether the development would hurt farming.
The windmills and solar panels would take up more than 10 square miles designated for agriculture near the Tri-Cities. A land planner representing Scout Clean Energy said farming would still define the hills.
"I think if you drive through the area after its construction, you'll see wheat fields and other agriculture uses side by side with the wind turbines and solar arrays," said Leslie McLain of Tetra Tech, an engineering firm.
County is against project
Benton County planner Greg Wendt said the proposal -- up to 244 windmills and more than 6,000 acres of solar panels -- was too big for an area set aside for agriculture.
"We're talking about the size, the mass, the location, just the overall scope of the project," he said. "It's an industrial use. It's not an agricultural use."
Scout Energy, based in Boulder, Colo., and owned by a Canadian company, Brookfield Renewable, proposed in 2021 what would be the state's largest renewable-energy installation.
Scout has lined up lease agreements with landowners, including farmers. The project has run into opposition from other local residents concerned about wildlife, marred views and other changes to the landscape.
Rather than seeking approval for the project from Benton County, Scout applied to EFSEC, most of whose voting members are connected to the Inslee administration, which has made renewable energy a priority.
The county, the Yakama Nation and a citizens group, Tri-Cities C.A.R.E.S., contest the project and will have a chance to highlight their opposition by questioning and cross-examaning witnesses this week and next.
Is it in harmony with ag?
At issue Monday was whether the energy project was in harmony with agriculture. Scout Energy attorney Tim McMahan read from a sworn statement from wheat farmer Chris Wiley supporting the project.
Lease payments would stabilize farms and ward off creeping urbanization, according to Wiley. "Do you disagree with Mr. Wiley's testimony?" McMahan asked Wendt.
Wendt said the wind and solar installation didn't meet the county's standards for a non-farm development on agricultural land. The county approved the Nine Canyon wind project in the same area, but the installation has only 63 turbines, takes up 75 acres and includes no solar panels.
"We support agriculture, support the rural character. At the end of the day here, this is an industrial project," Wendt said.
Although the Horse Heaven "project boundary" encompasses more than 72,00 acres, only 6,800 acres would be "permanently disrupted," McLain said.
"Farmers are able to farm right up to the wind turbine pads," she said. "This project will help maintain those wheat farms into the future, rather than letting them be under threat for zone changes and urbanization."
Each turbine would be 499-feet tall, according to Scout's plans. As an alternative, the company could put up 150 turbines, but each would be 657-feet tall, or 52 feet taller than the Space Needle in Seattle.
EFSEC will continue the hearings this week and next and also hold a public hearing Aug. 23. Council members will take into account the testimony in forwarding a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee.
Report: Horse Heaven Energy Project Impact on Farming 'Low' by Don Jenkins, Capital Press, 12/20/22
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