YAKIMA, Wash. – Yakima County is known for a wide variety of products.
There’s apples, cherries, mint, hops and asparagus, as well as some campers and CubCrafters aircraft.
One thing that doesn’t get produced in large quantities here is electricity.
Yakima County’s neighbors, Klickitat and Kittitas counties, are home to wind farms that dot the ridges, while The Dalles Dam spans the Columbia River, generating electrical power as the water flows through its powerhouse.
But Yakima County does not have any major energy production facilities.
At least for now.
Department of Natural Resources officials are looking into opening up some of its land in Yakima County to energy production, while Pacific Power envisions solar energy projects in Yakima County producing hundreds of megawatts of power in the next 12 years.
“We try to base our planning on customer and community needs,” said Pacific Power spokeswoman Laura Hastings-Brooks. “It has become more of a forefront in our portfolio mix.”
In the meantime, individual businesses are installing solar energy, and Pacific Power is working on programs where communities can request solar installations.
Alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, are gaining in popularity as they don’t rely on a finite resource such as fossil fuels, while at the same time they eliminate some of the environmental side effects of burning carbon-based fuels or using nuclear energy.
More than 10 years ago, Yakima County was considered for a wind farm. Dubbed Maiden Wind Farm, then-Washington Wind’s project called for building a series of turbines on Rattlesnake Mountain near Sunnyside and Prosser.
At the time, the project would have brought $400 million to Benton and Yakima counties over 20 years, while generating electricity.
But the project was scrapped in 2004 after Benton County planners said additional studies needed to show how the wind farms would affect the local elk population, as well as whether vibrations from the turbines would interfere with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory near Hanford.
Brian Lenz, Puget Sound Energy’s manager of natural gas and electric development, said further factors in locating wind farms include the availability of wind and being close to transmission lines to deliver power to customers.
In the case of Yakima County, it doesn’t have the wind resources that its neighbors have, Lenz said.
“Kittitas is one of those windy spots, and Yakima is less windy,” Lenz said.
Likewise, Pacific Power is in the process of upgrading its wind turbine farms in Klickitat County – where the winds blow strongly through the Columbia River Gorge – replacing blades and turbines to more efficiently generate power, Hastings-Brooks said.
But the Yakima area is well-suited to solar energy, according to data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The data shows that areas in and around Yakima can generate an average of 5,480 kilowatts per square meter of solar panel space a day over the course of a year.
And individual residents and business owners have embraced solar energy as a way to reduce power bills while using a cleaner form of energy.
Wesley United Methodist Church, Yakima Valley College, Tieton Farm & Creamery, and Roy Farms are among those that have added solar panels to their properties.
Dennis Wray, co-owner of Wray Electric, said his Ellensburg company has seen an increase in business from Yakima County as residents add solar panels to their homes. The main motivation is to reduce electric bills by using solar energy rather than from the utility, Wray said.
The area is good for solar energy, Wray said, as there is sunshine most days of the year.
But a larger-scale operation could be coming. DNR officials are considering leasing two tracts east of Moxee to solar energy companies, mainly as a way to increase revenue from land that the state is either not using or leasing for grazing at $2 an acre per year.
DNR spokesman Joe Smillie said there may be some announcement in the next couple of weeks regarding solar energy production on state land.
While Pacific Power does not have any specific plans yet, it has long-term plans for developing a solar-energy farm in Yakima County, Hastings-Brooks said.
The company’s most recent integrated resource plan calls for developing solar energy in Yakima that could generate 630 megawatts by 2030.
Also, Hastings-Brooks said the utility has a program where people who want solar energy can subscribe to fund a solar project that would service their community.
But in Kittitas County, solar is facing an uphill battle, as county commissioners extended a moratorium on solar-energy development amid protests about locating solar farms on agricultural land.
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