Solar Company asks Inslee Administration
by Don Jenkins
The county's stance is that it's a prohibited land use.
A Florida company has asked the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to preempt Benton County's ban on new solar plants and approve a power project on land zoned for agriculture.
BrightNight LLC proposes to build the 500-megawatt Hop Hill solar project 11 miles north of Prosser. The company initially sought permits from the county, but was rebuffed.
BrightNight still plans to work with county officials to make the solar project compatible with agriculture, Vice President for Development Chris Wissel-Tyson said Wednesday.
"Even if we go through the state process, we pride ourselves on working with the local community," he said. "We really want to avoid having an impact on agriculture."
Energy developers can bypass counties by applying to EFSEC, an arm of the Inslee administration. Eight projects, all in south-central Washington, are now before EFSEC.
BrightNight hopes to begin construction in early 2024. To have its application fast-tracked, EFSEC must find the project consistent with Benton County land laws. BrightNight claims that it is, despite the ban on new solar projects.
The company bases its claim on the date it applied for permits from the county, Dec. 20, 2021. The next day county commissioners prohibited any new solar projects on agricultural land. The vote was preceded by a public hearing in November.
The county subsequently sent back BrightNight's application. Seeing no way to win approval from the county, BrightNight applied to EFSEC.
BrightNight argues EFSEC should rule that the project is consistent with county land-use laws as they stood Dec. 20, 2021, the day the company submitted its application.
"They're just trying to muddy the waters," Benton County planning director Greg Wendt said. "The county's stance is that it's a prohibited land use."
EFSEC in November ruled the proposed Wautoma solar project was inconsistent with Benton County's land-use laws and cited the December 2021 ban. The Wautoma project, however, was not proposed until more than five months after commissioners enacted the ban.
BrightNight, in its application, urges EFSEC to preempt the ban adopted to "thwart renewable energy facilities."
Wissel-Tyson said BrightNight spent more than two years scouting for a site close to Bonneville Power Administration transmission lines that wouldn't take out a lot of habitat or farmland. The company plans to lease 58 parcels, all but three privately owned. No irrigated cropland will be lost, according to BrightNight.
About 5,000 acres of grazing land will be fenced, Wissel-Tyson said. The company anticipates having an agreement with a rancher to graze sheep inside the fences, he said. The area has historically been grazed by sheep, Wissel-Tyson said. "Sheep are gentle on the (solar) panels and frames," he said.
Along with installing solar panels, BrightNight proposes batteries to store electricity. The batteries could supply 500 megawatts for four hours, according to the company.
BrightNight and Cordelio Power of Toronto are partners in the Hop Hill project. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board owns Cordelio. The board's investments support pension, disability and survivor benefits for 21 million Canadians, according the board's website.
Yakima County commissioners have also declared a moratorium on new solar projects. Nevertheless, EFSEC this month ruled the High Top and Ostrea solar projects were consistent with county land-use laws. Yakima's ban came after EFSEC received applications for the side-by-side developments.
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