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Company applies to build massive solar, wind project on farmland

A state council next week will have public hearings on plans to build solar panels and erect wind turbines on thousands of acres of farmland in Benton County in south-central Washington.

Scout Clean Energy of Boulder, Colo., would lease 72,295 acres. While 6,860 acres would be “permanently impacted,” the rest could remain in agricultural production, according to the company’s application to the Washington Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

The project has encountered opposition. Two county commissioners have said they oppose it. Up to 244 wind turbines would be visible in the Tri-Cities, as well as neighboring Franklin and Walla Walla counties and Oregon.

Wheat farmer Chris Wiley, one of 69 landowners who have signed lease agreements, said the stable annual income will help farmers keep farming.

“This is definitely a way to keep family farms in the family for generations,” he said.

“As far as taking farmland out of production, it’s pretty negligible,” Wiley said. “We’ve weighed the pros and cons, and we’ve decided we’re in favor of it.”

Scout Energy, owned by private investment firm Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners, has been putting together the parcels for several years.

Rather than seek approval from a county hearings examiner, the company last month opted to apply to the state council, an unelected board of public employees that makes recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee.

In its application, Scout Energy said the wind and solar project will help the state have carbon-neutral electricity by 2030, a signature goal of Inslee’s climate-change agenda.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said Monday he opposes the project, saying wind turbines have marred Central Washington’s landscape. He called handing over the decision to Inslee “tragic.”

“When so many of my constituents say they oppose something, I listen,” he said. “Now it’s a decision that will be shoved down the local area’s throat.”

Though called Horse Heaven Wind Farm, the project may generate more solar power than wind power. The turbines and panels could generate up to 1,150 megawatts, according to the company. The state’s only nuclear power plant generates 1,207 megawatts.

On average, the project would provide enough electricity for 275,000 houses, according to the company, and cattle and sheep could graze near the turbines and up to the fences around the solar panels.

“We call it a drought-proof crop,” Scout Energy community outreach manager Javon Smith said. “Wind farms co-exist well with farmland.”

The energy council will hold via Skype two public hearings back-to-back Tuesday, March 30.

The first hearing will be 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and include presentations about the project and a chance for the public to comment.

The second hearing will be 7:30 to 9 p.m. on whether the solar and wind farm is consistent with local land-use laws. The land is designated for agriculture, but officials can approve other uses.

More information on signing up to testify and watching the hearings is available at efsec.wa.gov. Written comments may be emailed to efsec@utc.wa.gov.