Solar Project OK'd Over
by Don Jenkins
The Goose Prairie project will be near a Bonneville Power Administration transmission line.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has approved a 625-acre solar project that will be built on agricultural land and was opposed by the Yakima County Farm Bureau.
Inslee, adopting the recommendation of the Energy Facilities Site Evaluation Council, has signed off on the Goose Prairie Solar project 8 miles east of Moxee.
OneEnergy Renewables of Seattle received permission to build the 80-megawatt project 11 months after applying. The council fast-tracked the application, ruling the project followed county land laws and would not significantly harm the environment.
Two property owners leasing land to OneEnergy said the steady rental income was better than trying to farm or ranch the unirrigated land.
Yakima County Farm Bureau President Mark Herke said Dec. 23 the county chapter wrestled with the fact that the landowners supported the project. Nevertheless, the county chapter submitted lengthy comments objecting to the project.
The complaints included the amount of land that solar projects take up compared to wind turbines. The council said it was outside its scope to compare the relative impacts of solar and wind projects.
Herke said Goose Prairie and other solar projects will grab up farmland that still has the potential to be productive.
The "solar industrial complexes" will bolster arguments that dams, including the Lower Snake River dams, are unneeded for electricity, he said.
Except for the Yakima Farm Bureau, however, the project faced virtually no opposition.
"I just think people are asleep at the switch," Herke said. "I think we're diving off into the unknown."
The siting council, made up of state officials, and counties are considering numerous applications to build solar panels in Central Washington.
Developers must offset damage to shrub-steppe habitat, perhaps by buying other land in the area. Farmland is considered "degraded" habitat and does not require mitigation.
OneEnergy, founded in 2009, has developed solar projects totaling 700 megawatts, according to the council's report to Inslee, but this will be its first in Washington.
Goose Prairie project manager Blake Bjornson told the council at a presentation last spring that the demand for solar energy is primarily driven by state law. Electric utilities must supply only renewable energy by 2045.
The Goose Prairie project will be near a Bonneville Power Administration transmission line. OneEnergy estimates construction will employ up to 300 workers. Once finished, the facility is not expected to create any full-time jobs.
A rancher leasing to OneEnergy said in a letter to the council that the land dries out in the summer and has low value for winter pasture. The solar panels will not interfere with the ranch's other operations, he wrote.
An attorney for the other landowner said the land is currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, in which the USDA pays a yearly fee to keep environmentally sensitive farmland out of production.
The rental agreement with the USDA will expire next year, and leasing the land to OneEnergy will be more profitable, according to the attorney. To offset taking up shrub-steppe land and land that was enrolled in the conservation program, OneEnergy will have to pay a fee to either the state Department of Fish and Wildlife or a third party.
The money will be used to buy land in the same area, according to the council's mitigation plan. Herke said that could take more farmland out of production.
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