Washington Farmer Sees Wind, Solar
by Don Jenkins
Scout's lease payments will encourage farmers to keep going
and make losing agricultural land to houses less likely.
Wheat farmer Chris Wiley testified Aug. 23 that leasing land for the massive Horse Heaven wind and solar installation in southeast Washington could lead to an "agricultural renaissance."
Lease payments from Scout Clean Energy will allow his family to eliminate debt, upgrade equipment and keep farming in a tough environment, Wiley told the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
Wiley, 27, and his father combined farm about 8,000 acres. Turbines and service roads will take up about 1% of the land, Wiley estimated. "Absolutely, I think the project is compatible with dryland wheat farming."
Wiley testified on the sixth day of hearings EFSEC is conducting on what would be Washington's largest renewable energy development.
Scout, based in Boulder, Colo., proposes to install up to 244 windmills and more than 6,000 acres of solar panels near the Tri-Cities in Benton County.
County officials, the Yakama Nation and a citizens' group, Tri-City C.A.R.E.S., oppose the project. The hearings are intended to inform the council's recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee on whether to allow it.
By applying to EFSEC, Scout bypassed the county. Benton County planning manager Michelle Cooke, testifying after Wiley, said the wind and solar project does not belong on land zoned for agriculture.
Scout has lined up leases from about 40 landowners, but only nine live on the property they are leasing, Cooke said, citing assessor's records.
The turbines and panels will break up farmland and set a precedent for more energy projects on Horse Heaven Hills, she said.
"Economic gain in the short term doesn't necessarily equate to what is going to protect (agriculture) in the long term," Cooke said. "I don't believe this is going to protect agriculture into the future."
Most EFSEC voting members are connected to the Inslee administration, which has prioritized permitting wind and solar projects.
Wiley appeared at the request of EFSEC Chairwoman Kathleen Drew. He declined to disclose terms of the lease payments. Administrative Law Judge Adam Thorem barred attorneys from pressing for financial details.
Wiley testified about his family's history on Horse Heaven Hills, dating back to the 1940s. The hills typically get 6 to 8 inches of rain a year, making farming difficult, he said. "You really have to love it here to make it work."
Scout's lease payments will encourage farmers to keep going and make losing agricultural land to houses less likely, he said.
"That is the biggest threat as far as what would take our land out of farm production," Wiley said.
Cooke disagreed that Horse Heaven Hills is in danger of being developed. "It's flat-out not allowed in that zone," she said. "I strongly believe this area will never be urbanized."
Several state agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, will vote on whether to recommend the project to Inslee. The department doesn't have a permanent seat on the council, but can choose to review projects that impact agriculture.
Agriculture Department Director Derek Sandison participated in pre-hearing meetings, but has been absent from the hearings.
He said in an interview Wednesday that last week he was at a gathering of U.S., Mexican and Canadian agricultural officials in Saskatchewan, Canada.
This week, he's been catching up and dealing with other issues. "I'll be able to watch the proceedings in their entirety and review the transcripts," Sandison said.
Sandison is the only department director on the council. Other directors have appointed surrogates.
Renewable energy projects could take farmland, but also help farmers, he said. "There is an important policy issue underlying all this," he said.
Farming Concerns Arise at Horse Heaven Wind and Solar Project Hearings by Don Jenkins, Capital Press, 8/15/23
Report: Horse Heaven Energy Project Impact on Farming 'Low' by Don Jenkins, Capital Press, 12/20/22
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