ELLENSBURG – Kittitas County commissioners are opposed to a state agency taking over the permitting process for community wind power systems from local city or county governments.
Yet businesses in the community wind power industry say a proposal now before state legislators doesn’t take away any authority from local governments to review land-use impacts from smaller wind projects.
The two sides clashed Thursday during a public hearing in Olympia on Senate Bill 5228 that would allow the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) to review, process and approve permits for community wind power developments.
County Commission Chairman Paul Jewell said Friday land-use decisions on small wind projects should always be made at the local government level.
“I told the committee that although the legislation doesn’t affect Kittitas County, we are concerned that it will take the opportunity away from other local governments to make their own decisions by their own citizens and elected officials.”
Terry Meyer, manager of Bellingham-based Cascade Community Wind Co., spoke in support of the legislation.
His company has two wind turbines going up in two separate projects on rural lands northwest of Ellensburg with towers 116 feet tall.
Meyer and other community wind supporters in Kittitas County last year worked with county officials to develop a proposed ordinance that would allow community wind projects in rural areas of the county that could use industrial sized turbines and towers in small groups.
The largest towers at local wind farms have a tip height of 410 feet.
After public hearings last year, county commissioners denied the ordinance’s approval, opting to wait to see the impact of bigger wind farms under construction first.
Limits on use
Meyer said developers using the proposed state provisions of going to EFSEC instead of local government for a permit would only be allowed if a local government didn’t have an ordinance that governed community wind projects.
He spoke on behalf of the statewide Local Energy Alliance of Washington at the hearing before the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee.
“The state permit process would only be available if there are no local rules for it,” Meyer said. “It also would allow small wind projects if a local government refuses to develop its own rules.”
Meyer said the legislative proposal doesn’t have any height restrictions on turbine towers.
He also said city and county governments that don’t have development rules for small wind projects could develop their own ordinance to steer clear of developers using the new state provisions.
Kittitas County government has land-use rules for siting large wind farm projects along with a wind energy overlay zone in the eastern half of the county.
The county also has an ordinance dealing with smaller wind turbine projects with towers that are 120 feet or shorter.
Jewell said the proposed legislation would apply to city or county governments that don’t have small wind power rules, haven’t updated their rules for the past 10 years or have a process that takes more than six months.
He said the Washington Association of Counties and the Association of Washington Cities also oppose the legislation.
Jewell said Meyer advocates a change in the proposed legislation to allow raising the threshold from a maximum 100 kilowatts and below for EFSEC review on projects to a maximum of 5 megawatts, a big jump.
Meyer acknowledged his proposal, saying small wind projects usually only break even at 120 kilowatts, the generating capacity of the turbines going in northwest of Ellensburg.
“It really doesn’t make revenue for investors and rural landowners until it’s a project of 275 kilowatts or larger, then it just begins to possibly be economical,” Meyer said. “Adequate profitability to get something back usually is reached at the 2.5 megawatt level.”
Meyer said the proposed bill, with companion House Bill 1081 in the state House, gives rural landowners, farmers and ranchers an environmentally compatible way of generating income from their wind resources and put sustainable, alternative energy into the power grid.
Meyer said if the legislation is passed, the EFSEC process would be affordable to community wind developers, and EFSEC would work with local governments to deal with environmental and visual concerns, including determining the proper height for the towers.
Jewell said allowing small wind projects to go to the state “fundamentally changes the focus of EFSEC to include not just major power generation projects but small community proposals.”
He said EFSEC is a body of unelected representatives from state agencies.
Jewell said commissioners have experience with the state process, noting that EFSEC and a decision by Gov. Chris Gregoire pre-empted Kittitas County government authority and approved the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project northwest of Ellensburg.
Jewell warned the Senate bill was like a “gateway drug” that will open the door to state-government takeover of other energy-related projects that should be decided at the local level.
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