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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

Some of the top sites for turbines already are claimed by the completed Nine Canyon project. But a new generation of turbines is able to make better use of the wind in other parts of the hills, and support a project that Scout Clean Energy officials are convinced can turn a profit.

"It's the technological advance that's making this all happen," said Dave Kobus, Scout's project manager. "The market is evolving so fast that if you are not negotiating with turbine manufacturers now, you don't know how good these turbines are."

Kobus, a former nuclear power plant worker, has deep knowledge of the winds that blow across the Horse Heaven Hills. While working at Richland-based Energy Northwest, he helped put together the Nine Canyon project, and has built upon that experience to help piece together a siting plan for Scout Clean Energy.

Typically, a wind turbine is considered reasonably efficient if it is able to produce through the course of a year 30% of its maximum generating capacity. Kobus says that the designs of new turbines will enable this project to produce more than that.

"I can't really tell you how much better because that's our proprietary edge," Kobus said.

The big expansion of turbines, coupled with big solar development, has raised concern about wildlife. Songbirds and sandhill cranes by the thousands migrate across the hills. Burrowing owls, kestrels, prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and the threatened ferruginous hawks all are found flying the thermals over the ridgelines. Some use the cliffs as nesting habitat and forage on mice and other rodents they find in the wheat fields or canyons, according to Lisa Fitzner, a former Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist who worked in Benton County and submitted comments to the commission that requested years of site studies before moving ahead with the project.

Michael Ritter, a Pasco-based WDFW biologist who reviews wind and solar plans, has already offered a bleak assessment of the project's "land scale" impacts. During the public hearing held by the state commission, he said they "will be difficult if not impossible to mitigate," in an area that contains some of "the last remaining functional and uninterrupted shrub-steppe and natural grasslands in Benton County."

Project proponents say that extensive development of wind turbines east of the Cascades in both Oregon and Washington has not had a disastrous impact on wildlife. They cite a 2011 review of 6,700 megawatts of Columbia Basin wind power development — authored by Western Ecosystems Technology — to assess the cumulative impacts on birds and bats. The study estimated more than 15,000 birds of some 98 species died each year from the Columbia basin turbines, including more than 530 raptors.

Yet for the raptors that suffered the greatest turbine mortality, kestrels and red-tailed hawks, the report found the overall impact of the deaths caused by turbines "is likely insignificant from a population standpoint."

The report also noted an Eastern Washington study found that some species of raptors continued to nest in areas after wind turbines were installed nearby.

Kobus says that most of the turbines, wind panels and other development will be placed on farmland, not native undisturbed acreage, and accuses Ritter of a "rush to judgment."

Ritter says that wildlife deaths from turbines and other project development may not make a regional impact on wildlife populations, but could result in the localized loss of some species.

Dryland wheat farmers see boon

 

For dryland wheat farms of the Horse Heaven Hills, the wind has long been more of an enemy than an ally. Through the decades, the wind has generated dust storms that blow the soil — so vital to their livelihoods — away.

To protect the fields from the wind, Wiley's family has invested in expensive no-till equipment that allows them to forgo plowing and seed directly into the past year's wheat stubble.

Still, the scant rainfall, an average of only 8 inches a year, limits yields. Even in a good year, they may be less than half that of the Palouse lands to the east and bring in — before expenses — only about $400 an acre even in good years when prices are strong and the weather cooperates.

"You don't break even every year. And so you have to be very good at planning ahead ... and making sure that your good years outweigh your bad years. It's stressful," Wiley said.

The lease fees a Horse Heaven Hills farmer could earn from wind turbines are confidential. Elsewhere in Washington, the lease payments, tied to a percentage of power generation revenue, may range from $12,000 to more than $18,000 annually for each turbine, according to industry sources.

Wiley is a fourth-generation farmer on the hills, who now lives in the small house his great-grandfather purchased in 1946 when he moved to the area from Dayton, Columbia County.

More than a decade ago, when Wiley was still in middle school, prospective wind developers talked to his family about putting turbines on some of their 5,000 acres. Eventually, his grandfather signed an agreement. But the prospect of new revenue from the wind appeared to be a pipe dream as years rolled by, and no project ever got started.

Three years ago, Scout Clean Energy took interest in the hills and began reaching out to landowners.

A few wanted nothing to do with wind turbines, and spurned the company's offers, according to Kobus.

But over time, the company secured lease agreements with some three dozen landowners, including three from the Wiley family whose acreage — if the project is approved — is likely to hold several turbines, and a portion of a solar installation, Kobus said.

Wiley knows the views around his farmland are going to change. The field right by his house would be full of solar panels. But he accepts those changes for a project that will bring his family a new prosperity.

"In this neck of the woods, retirement isn't a very common word," he said. "A lot of people work until they die."

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