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A proposed $1.7 billion wind and solar project generates hopes and fears in Washington state

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Proponents say it is the kind of project needed to help Washington meet the requirements of a 2019 law that calls for ending by 2045 electricity production from coal and gas unless some way is found to capture planet-warming carbon emissions.

This epic change is expected to contribute to a regional build-out of tens of thousands of megawatts of new zero-carbon energy generation by midcentury, according to Ben Kujala, director of power planning with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. The Scout project does not yet have contracts with utilities that will use the power, but expects to put in bids to deliver electricity to Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric and other regional utilities. The utilities benefit from the region's abundant low-carbon hydropower, but forecast a need for additional renewable resources in the years ahead.

"We have a resource gap. And we want to be part of the puzzle in meeting that," said Javon Smith, a Scout spokesperson.

Controversy erupts

The project has faced a chilly reception in South Central Washington, a Republican stronghold where many remain skeptical over the urgency of climate change and rallied behind President Donald Trump as he withdrew the nation from the Paris Agreement on climate and sought to revive the coal industry and expand U.S. oil and natural gas production.

Last summer, the Benton County Public Utility District launched an early broadside against the project as Scout Clean Energy was finishing up three years of efforts to reach lease agreements.

 

The utility district was a participant in an earlier Horse Heaven Hills wind power project, Nine Canyon, that by 2007 included 63 turbines over a 4-mile stretch of the hills' crest. Yet in a policy paper released last fall, the public utility district decried the "industrialization of previously scenic hillsides, canyons and desert vistas in the region," and expressed concern that more wind power could increase the risk of blackouts and suggested that nuclear power was the best way for Washington's power industry to achieve zero-carbon emission.

This year, there have been more attacks on the project.

Some of the most vocal critics include homeowners in newer subdivisions that have been built in the Horse Heaven Hills. Turbines would become part of their views of nearby ridgelines. The Tri-City Herald, in a March 19 editorial, spoke to a broader angst. "The thought of turning our beloved Horse Heaven Hills into a pin cushion for massive wind turbines breaks the hearts of most Tri-Citians," the editorial declared.

Also in March, all three Benton County commissioners declared their opposition to the project, and reported that the majority of more than 400 public comments they received were against the project.

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