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Washington clean energy project mired in ‘no man’s land’ amid planning setbacks

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(The Center Square) – The Horse Heaven Clean Energy Center generating wind and solar energy south of the Tri-Cities in southeastern Washington was expected to begin construction in 2021. Three years later, the project is still in the planning phase, with Gov. Jay Inslee most recently sending the proposed site certification agreement back to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council for reconsideration.

Meanwhile, the process has drawn concern from local officials for its potential impact to natural resources in addition to what some perceive as skirting state environmental regulations.

In 2021, Boulder, Colorado-based Scout Clean Energy filed an application for the project, which, if completed, would generate 1,150 megawatts of energy and have up to 231 wind turbines. It would also include solar arrays that generate no more than 800 MW of energy. The project would encompass approximately 72,428 acres of privately owned land that is otherwise used for dryland wheat farming.

EFSEC eventually reduced the project’s scope from its original design out of environmental concerns, such as protecting historic hawk nest sites by creating a buffer zone between them and wind turbines.

Islee wrote in a May 25 letter to the council that the proposed site was too small and needed to be expanded. He argued that their environmental protection “takes an overly broad approach to addressing the very different types of impacts at issue. The outright prohibition of turbine locations should be replaced with mitigation in the form of operational conditions that allow for build-out of the vast majority of the proposed Project.”

“While it is incumbent upon the Council to minimize environmental and other impacts of these projects where feasible, the critical need for rapid and large-scale growth in our state’s clean energy generation capacity should guide the Council’s consideration of conditions or limitations that would limit the scale of proposed clean energy projects,” he wrote further.

The EFSEC was created in 1970 for siting and permitting of large energy projects. In 2022, the state Legislature enacted House Bill 1812, which made the council a stand-alone entity within the state government, gave it further authority regarding clean energy projects, and directed it toward collaboration with local governments and tribes when choosing locations for those projects.

However, some elected officials saw a variety of flaws in the process. Yakima Commissioner Amanda McKinney said local governments are legally liable for violating state laws, including the Growth Management Act, if they issue permits that do not comply. Individuals can sue local governments under GMA even if they do not live in the affected area or lack standing.

One of the project’s ongoing problems is a water source for both construction and operations. Currently, Scout Clean Energy has yet to secure the necessary water rights. It originally intended to obtain them from the Selah-Moxee Irrigation District but was denied. Scout Clean Energy then applied through the state Department of Ecology to gain groundwater rights from a watershed located in south-central Washington and managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

In an Oct. 24 letter to EFSEC, McKinney requested a restart of the State Environmental Protection Act process. Among her concerns is a potential “impact to water right holders and users” within the Yakima Basin.

“This is a sham,” she said. “How can you come up with an environmental review that is satisfactory to mitigate for the response if you don’t know where the water is coming from? When we don’t have enough water already, it’s a significant issue.”

Yakima County is among the entities involved in the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan, which is made up of conservation groups, irrigators, state, local, and federal agencies in addition to the Yakama Nation. That 23-member group collaborates on how to increase water supply in the region.

Also among its members is Benton County Board of Commissioners, who last year passed a resolution in opposition to the project, claiming that it is “inconsistent and incompatible with required outright permitted uses” under state law.

Senate Bill 5992 proposed this legislative session would have required anyone seeking EFSEC certification for a clean energy project to provide evidence of an adequate water supply; the bill failed to clear the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy & Technology.

Among its supporters was the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, which argued in written testimony that the bill would ensure that EFSEC has “sufficient information to fulfill its responsibility to fully evaluate each project’s environmental impacts.”

Aside from water rights, McKinney said one of her big problems with the process has been inconsistent application of state law.

“I don’t have an opinion necessarily about what it is that’s being built. Where I have a strong opinion is providing this type of expedited process,”she said. “Every year, regulations for building and development become even more strict and more onerous on the part of applicants, and yet for this specific sector they are willing to overlook the impacts. My highest concern is for the safety and wellbeing of the residents sited nearby.”

Even if EFSEC addresses Inslee’s concerns, McKinney said the county will not issuing any new permits for the project until all questions regarding legal liability are addressed.

“We’re struck in no man’s land,” she said.

She added that there are plans to introduce a bill during next year’s legislative session requiring EFSEC siting certification to comply with the same environmental regulations as local governments.

When The Center Square reached out to EFSEC for comment, a public information officer wrote in an email that “although we are not in a position to comment on the Horse Heaven project at the moment, I can say that EFSEC is reviewing Gov. Inslee’s direction and we are working on mapping out the next steps forward in the process.”

The Center Square also reached out to Scout Clean Energy for comment on Gov. Inslee’s letter to EFSEC. CEO Michael Rucker wrote in a statement that “we appreciate Governor Inslee’s leadership and the efforts being made by all parties to strike the appropriate balance between mitigating potential impacts and maximizing the project’s ability to generate urgently needed clean energy. We look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with all project stakeholders to achieve Washington state’s goals for combating climate change.”

In his letter to EFSEC, Inslee requested that they resubmit the draft certification agreement within 90 calendar days.

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