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Wind farm will harm Tri-City tourism, devalue hydro

Gov. Jay Inslee will soon decide if the relatively new wine country of Horse Heaven Hills is a good fit for a 24-mile swath of wind turbines ranging from 500 to 670 feet high. Power from these goliaths of new wind tech will meet his clean energy goals for western Washington.

It will also cause irreparable environmental and economic harm to our community for the next half century.

So why here? Because they don’t want it there.

Case in point: In 2011 Energy Northwest pursued a wind project on the west side, for the west side.

Their site centered on a former gravel quarry in Pacific County, right alongside communication towers and commercial logging operations. The location offered advantages of high winter winds and readily accessible transmission lines.

Ecological studies, however, estimated the proposed 27 wind turbines would kill one marbled murrelet, an environmentally threatened bird, every two years, or five murrelets each decade. It was the leverage opponents needed. Political strings were pulled, and working closely with the state Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service effectively killed the project by requiring cost prohibitive mitigation strategies.

Colorado-based Scout Clean Energy is taking lessons from that failed attempt. There will be no effort to stake turbines – some 65 feet taller than Seattle’s Space Needle – along the I-5 corridor where they are needed. As a rule, the taller the turbine the deadlier to wildlife, and 150 to 245 of these massive machines will take out their fair share of birds. Statistically, deaths will mainly be songbirds, followed by day-hunters such as hawks, eagles and peregrine falcons.

Efforts to win local hearts – a webinar, a chat on KONA radio, and local ads extolling the project’s tax benefit – have been minimal. Scout instead made an end-run on the county by applying directly to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council in Olympia, where the final decision will rest with the governor. To be fair, in January a Scout representative said the project could be fully permitted through Benton County, but that would prove “burdensome” on local agencies. The kindness of this gesture appears lost on 90% of residents who spoke out at the county’s recent town meeting.

During that meeting, a Scout spokesperson said the project “needs to be close to a power market with a developing need.”

The reference was to investor-owned utilities, such as Puget Sound Energy in Bellevue and Pacific Power in Portland, which must bolster their clean-energy portfolios to meet state carbon-reduction mandates. Our local utilities already meet these mandates – we’re flush with hydro and nuclear. Southeastern Washington won’t need additional energy until at least 2030, and by then advanced nuclear should be in construction. Cheap natural gas can readily serve as a stop-gap if needed.

We could certainly use millions of dollars in annual tax payments, a short-term construction boon and 45 long-term maintenance jobs.

But the wind farm will take far more than it gives.

It will slice through the view shed of wine country, and skirt along miles of urban growth boundaries specifically designed to preserve and protect natural and agricultural lands. Property and home values along the boundaries will plummet. Destroying the scenic vistas of these high, rolling hills (and a bald eagle here and there) will sacrifice tens of millions of dollars in community growth and tourism potential.

Market competition from this government-subsidized power will also devalue our local hydro assets, which already take a market beating from cheap natural gas. The impact will be higher-cost electric bills.

This competitive bite will hit us each spring, when wind tends to blow and is needed least. Excess energy from Scout’s project will be available to the market at the same time our public utility districts are selling surplus hydro to help sustain our low residential energy costs. Plus, there are no transmission lines in place to move the power – another cost recouped through our electric bills.

This project, as Richland’s Dr. Jim Conca recently wrote, “will make someone out of state a lot of money.”

The instate value will be passed to west-side utility customers, and we will pay for it all.

The state council’s public hearing on Tuesday, March 30, is our last best chance to tell Olympia, and the governor, what we think of this scheme. Benton and Franklin residents need to participate in that meeting – we won’t get another shot.

Let’s tell state leaders we will not support a venture in our backyard designed to solve a problem in their backyard; we do not accept the notion that sending energy value to our west-side neighbors is worth forfeiting the economic and environmental health of our own community.

Mike Paoli is a graduate of the University of Idaho’s utility executive course, and was Chief Communication Officer for Energy Northwest. He owns Tri-Cities Public Relations in Kennewick.