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Two Washington bills, two different approaches to renewable energy projects
Steve Wilson
Wikimedia Commons
Two bills with opposite approaches in the Washington Legislature hope to change how some renewable energy projects get approved.

Two bills with opposite approaches in the Washington Legislature hope to change how some renewable energy projects get approved.

Now, the Washington’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council reviews large-scale energy development in the state. After public hearings, it sends a recommendation to the governor, who approves or denies the project.

One new bill, House Bill 1871, would pause the state approval process for new renewable energy projects until Dec. 1, 2023. During that moratorium, a task force would study how renewable energy projects affect rural communities where the projects often are built. Rep. Mark Klicker, R-Walla Walla, sponsored the bill.

Local governments currently approve the vast majority of renewable energy projects, said Council Chair Kathleen Drew, who opposed H.B. 1871.

Some county officials, who supported H.B. 1871, said the state approval process is a way around local government control.

Klicker said Eastern Washington communities are burdened with generating renewable energy, while more populated areas west of the Cascades use most of that energy.

For example, wind turbines began popping up in Walla Walla County around 25 years ago, he said.

“It was fascinating. But, as the years have gone by, we’re finding wind turbines, and we’re seeing solar fields throughout Eastern Washington,” Klicker said at a House Environment and Energy Committee hearing Jan. 21.

The fascination has now turned to frustration, he said, as many renewable projects block views.

Take proposed large-scale solar farms in Klickitat County, said Klickitat County Commissioner Dan Christopher at Tuesday’s public hearing for the H.B. 1871.

“In the rush to beat climate change, I believe a lot of elected officials aren’t doing a very good job in looking out for poor, rural communities, like mine,” Christopher said.

If signed into law, H.B. 1871 would significantly slow renewable energy development in Washington, Drew said. It would extend the approval of some renewable energy projects by more than two years, she said.

Right now, Christopher said, Klickitat County has 660 wind turbines, the largest solar project in the state, and more than 8,000 acres that are leased for upcoming solar projects.

An outspoken group of property owners in Klickitat County has fought several solar projects in their backyards, calling the situation a nightmare.

Last summer, solar protestors lined a main thoroughfare in Goldendale, Washington. Greg Wagner founded C.E.A.S.E., or Citizens Educated About Solar Energy, to oppose the solar projects. Wagner’s land could soon be hemmed in by a solar farm, he said.

Solar companies study a variety of potential environmental harms, he said, from wildlife to plants to water usage.

“They never do a human impact study. They never look at how it’s going to hurt the people that have to live around these things,” Wagner told Northwest Public Broadcasting last May.

H.B. 1871 would call for a study of human impacts, including how renewable energy projects affect rural communities, Klicker said. A legislative task force would look into potential solutions to those concerns.

Right now, the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council independently reviews environmental, community and cultural concerns associated with proposed renewable energy projects, Drew said.

The council has approved four wind projects – two of which have been built, she said. It has approved two solar projects – one has been built. Two additional solar projects submitted applications to the council, she said.

As renewable energy projects become more controversial, more developers may seek approval through the council, Drew said.

“But, I think that working closely with local governments is our preferred way of working, and we’d like to continue to do that,” Drew said.

However, officials in the Tri-Cities said local governments can and should handle all renewable energy development, including large-scale projects.

An earlier survey of Tri-Cities residents found 79% wanted more local involvement in renewable energy development, said Stephanie Barnard, government and regional affairs director for the Tri-Cities Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“Tri-Citians feel they have sacrificed so much, already, of our scenic hillsides, canyons and desert vistas,” Barnard said, referring to a proposed large-scale wind project that has raised concerns over cluttered views.

As more wind and solar developments are proposed, there needs to be a broader look at the burden communities face, she said.

However, a separate bill would streamline the council’s process to review renewable energy projects.

Gov. Jay Inlsee requested House Bill 1812 to help meet clean energy goals and create clean energy jobs, said Becky Kelly, Inslee’s senior policy advisor for climate. Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, sponsored the bill.

“Now we must build the clean energy future here in Washington, while protecting the environment and communities and respecting tribal rights and interests,” Kelly said at the Jan. 21 hearing.

H.B. 1812 would allow more clean energy developers access to the council’s approval process, Kelly said, which would expand renewable projects to include energy storage projects, clean energy manufacturing, and renewable hydrogen production.

Moreover, the bill doesn’t cut corners on project approval standards or transparency, she said.

In addition, the bill aims to formalize tribal consultation in the project review process. Some of the details still need to be worked out, tribal representatives said. [READ MORE HERE]

To help with citing concerns, lawmakers should incorporate least-conflict solar siting into the approval of projects, said Michael Garrity, energy water and major projects division manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The department supported H.B. 1812.

In the least-conflict pilot program, maps from local communities will outline potential areas for renewable development that aren’t so hotly debated.

Garrity supported what he called no-regret siting decisions.

In addition, Cassandra Macy, a legislative aide with Innergex Renewable Development, said a swift approval process through the council would be necessary if county governments ban renewable energy development locally.

On Dec. 21, 2021, the Benton County Commission approved an ordinance that effectively stops local approval of commercial wind and solar development on agricultural lands. At the commission meeting, several renewable energy developers said they did not want to be forced to seek state approval.

At the Washington House Environment and Energy Committee hearing, Macy said Innergex Renewable Development is planning a solar facility in southeastern Washington’s Benton County.

However, she said, Benton County’s new ordinance would mean any new projects would have to go through the council.

“This bill will clear the path for renewable energy projects in Benton County,” Macy said of H.B. 1812.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.