A state public hearing on Tuesday may turn out to be a face-off between those who welcome the proposed wind turbines south of the Tri-Cities as a step toward the nation’s clean energy future and those who see the proposed wind farm as the industrialization of the community’s skyline.
It’s important that the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council hear from the public on the proposed Horse Heaven Wind Farm, said Emilie Brown, a spokeswoman for the council.
The change to the view from the Tri-Cities is a key impact of the project that the council will have to assess subjectively, as opposed to environmental impacts that are easier to measure, such as how much vegetation could be disturbed.
It also can help the council decide if there are steps that can be taken to offset some of the community’s concerns, Brown said.
The council eventually will make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee on whether the proposal should be approved or denied.
If the recommendation is for approval it could come with required changes, including on how the project looks as seen from the Tri-Cities.
Scout Clean Energy is proposing a 112-square-mile clean energy production site, with wind turbines that would stretch along the Horse Heaven Hills from south of Finley to south of Benton City. The developed area of the project would cover about 10 square miles.
The Colorado-based company is considering two options.
One would have 244 turbines standing up to almost 500 feet tall.
The other option would be to install fewer, but taller, turbines. There would be 150 turbines standing up to 670 feet tall.
The project will also include solar facilities and battery storage systems for an energy generating capacity of up to 1,150 megawatts.
The first phase of the project could begin operating by the end of 2023.
Wind turbine plan changes?
It is too soon to say what measures, if any, might be considered to change the appearance of the project, Brown said.
But in at least one decision the council made, it required scaling down the size of a project.
When the Whistling Ridge wind farm was proposed across the Columbia River from Hood River, Ore., the most hotly contested issue was what it would do to the view, according to state documents.
Proposed turbines would be prominently visible within the Columbia River Gorge, portions of which had already been designated a National Scenic Area.
“We agree … that entire wind production towers rising more than 40 stories above the skyline on a prominent ridge, with smooth modern designs contracting markedly with rugged natural formations, would be readily noticeable and intrusive into the surrounding view,” the council wrote in an order in 2011.
But it also disagreed that the visibility of a relatively small number of partially or wholly obscured towers from a small number of viewing areas would be so intrusive that they must be totally forbidden.
The order approved the project but with only 35 of the least intrusively sited turbines rather than all 50 as proposed.
The wind farm has not been built.
While the Horse Heaven Hills does not have the gorge’s designation of a National Scenic Area, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., is urging Inslee to consider the proposed development’s impact on the Mid-Columbia’s “rural and natural character.”
Turbine impact on natural landscape
“We are blessed with a profoundly unique geologic history, shaped and contoured by the great Ice Age Floods,” he wrote in a letter to Inslee last week. “Our region’s defining characteristics include our rolling hills, steep slopes, and majestic skyline views including Mounts Adams, Rainier, and Hood.”
The scale of the project would place “a colossal impact on our natural landscape,” he wrote.
He said many Tri-Cities residents are rightly concerned about the impacts of placing hundreds of structures the size of the Space Needle across the community’s skylines.
He also brought up the contribution the rural character of the region has on what he called the Tri-Cities world-class wine industry.
Tourism generated more than $560 million and created more than 6,300 jobs in Benton and Franklin counties in the year before the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
But Scout Clean Energy says that in its experience, those who are most opposed to wind projects are those with homes homes in direct line of sight to turbines.
But the nearly 70 landowners who have reached agreement for their acreage to be used for the project must be considered, Scout Clean Energy said in a statement. Some of the land is from homesteads that have been passed down from generation to generation.
Turbines help farmers
“The history of their homes and farming operations extends well beyond the time when large homes first started appearing on the ridgelines,” Scout said. “These landowners, who work extremely hard under challenging farming conditions, deserve the opportunity to benefit from the energy project.”
One landowner, Christopher “Bubba” Wiley, said in an op-ed published in the Tri-City Herald that the Horse Heaven Wind Farm is an opportunity for farmers to diversify for their farm operation, increase land value and insulate themselves from unstable crop markets.
It is an opportunity “that will maybe let my father retire someday, instead of working himself to an early death like his father and grandfather before him.”
“Shame on you for condemning construction on a ridge while hoping to someday build a mansion on the very same hill slope,” Wiley said. “Shame on you for being this upset about something that at the very most, would be a slight change to your backyard view. Because this same thing would be an absolute life changing blessing to your neighboring community.”
The Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce has yet to weigh in on the project, but has asked people to take its online survey to help it identify issues of concern.
“In your opinion, is the Horse Heaven Wind Project worth the personal, environmental and economic impacts?” it asks.
The survey is posted at surveymonkey.com/r/38JQ8WL.
Washington state hearing
The first decision of the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council will be on Scout Clean Energy’s request for expedited processing of its application.
The council may agree to expedited processing if the Horse Heaven Hills site is in compliance with land use plans and zoning ordinances and the environmental impacts of the project are found to be not significant or could be mitigated to a level that makes them not significant.
If expedited processing is not granted, the application will be reviewed by an independent consultant and proceedings on the application will continue.
The Washington state agency’s public hearing is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 30. Questions will be answered from 5 to 5:30 p.m., followed by a presentation and then a public hearing.
Anyone wishing to comment must sign up by 5 p.m. the day of the meeting by calling 360-664-1345 or emailing email@example.com. Comments also may be emailed to that address or mailed to EFSEC, P.O. Box 47250, Olympia, WA 98504.
People will be allowed to comment on all issues surrounding the proposed Horse Heaven Wind Farm at the Tuesday meeting, according to the agency.
It will be held online via Skype at bit.ly/EFSECmeetingHH and also will have telephone access at 360-407-3810. The meeting ID is 6702140#.