KENNEWICK – The proposed Horse Heaven Hills Wind Farm just south of the Tri-Cities would be so large that its impacts on important wildlife would be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid, says the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
While the state agency is still preparing formal written comments, a staff member gave a brief overview of its concerns during Tuesday night’s meeting of the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.
More than 200 people attended the virtual meeting, and the agency received more than 300 comments before the meeting.
Scout Clean Energy of Colorado is proposing a wind farm on a 112-square-mile clean energy production site, with wind turbines that would stretch along 24 miles of 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 most likely option it is considering would include 244 turbines standing almost 500 feet tall, with a second proposed option including 150 turbines standing as high as 670 feet. That’s more than 60 feet taller than the Seattle Space Needle.
Officials with both Benton County and Visit Tri-Cities said Tuesday they opposed the project.
Comments from others were both pro and con.
Union officials said the project would provide much-needed construction jobs and some long-term maintenance jobs.
A landowner said that the turbines would be on land already farmed and those fighting the proposal are trying to stand in the way of their neighbors. Much of the land to be leased for the project is now used for dry land wheat or pasture.
Another farmer said fears of noise, shadows from the moving turbines and red flashing lights have been blown out of perspective because the turbines would be concentrated on the south side of the Horse Heaven Hills, away from Tri-Cities views.
Those opposed said the short-term economic benefits from construction would be outweighed by the long-term harm the project could do, including to the area’s tourism economy and quality of life.
“People in Benton County and the Tri-City region care deeply about preserving their ridges and skylines for future generations,” said Benton County Commissioner Will McKay.
Others speculated that the power produced by the wind farm, which is proposed to include solar and battery storage components, would be exported to areas, including in California, that have banned wind farms there.
Imagine a panorama of 244 turbines the size of the Space Needle lined up from Seattle to Tacoma, said Markus Stauffer of the Tri-Cities’ Save Our Ridges.
“We don’t wish that on Seattle, so please don’t do that to the Tri-Cities,” he said.
The meeting Tuesday night was one of the early steps toward a decision by the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council on whether to recommend the wind farm be permitted. Gov. Jay Inslee will make the final decision.
More opportunities for public comment are expected, in part because Scout Clean Energy this week withdrew its application to have a decision on a permit for the wind farm fast tracked after hearing concerns from community member that could limit public involvement.
A full environmental review, called in environmental impact statement, still must be done.
The Horse Heaven Hills has some of the last remaining uninterrupted shrub steppe and natural grasslands in Benton County, testified Michael Ritter of Kennewick, the statewide technical lead for wind and solar development for the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The proposed site of the project and its length from east to west puts its turbines, transmission lines and solar arrays close to or crossing over many of the draws and canyons with native shrub steppe and grassland habitat, he said.
The ridgeline represents important connectivity among natural areas, he said.
“The immense size of the project along the Horse Heaven Hills ridgeline and … impact to an important wildlife and habitat connectivity corridor will be difficult if not impossible to mitigate,” he said.
Visit Tri-Cities is concerned that the project could cause significant harm to the area’s tourism economy and business investments, Visitors spend more than $500 million annually in Benton and Franklin counties, said Michal Novakovich, president of the organization.
Novakovich said a hotel developer told him he had dropped a hotel project because the proposed wind project would be in the hotel’s line of sight.
Wind turbines would not only rob the region of scenic beauty, but would create a perception of a windy destination, Novakovich said.
The rolling vineyards and estate wineries make up “incredible views” of the Horse Heaven Hills in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area, he said.
The area’s rugged desert hills are a draw not only to wine lovers, but also to those interested in exploring and understanding areas carved by ice age floods.
The wine industry also could be harmed, said state Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy.
The Horse Heaven Hills has 27 percent of Washington state’s total grape production and produces some of the state’s most coveted wines, she said.
In west Texas, wind turbines have been found to raise temperatures about three-quarters of a degree and change the microclimate of the land, she said.
“I’m very concerned about the impact this change could make. It could devastate some of the area’s most important wine production areas,” she said.
Benton County opposed
The Benton County Commission submitted a letter to the state council on Tuesday saying that the project would not comply with goals and policies of the Benton County Comprehensive plan or the criteria needed to obtain a county conditional use permit.
The county has received more than 400 calls and emails from residents on the Horse Heaven Wind Farm.
About 90 percent of those contacting the county oppose the project, McKay said.
The turbines would be visible from up to 80 percent of the land within 10 miles of the project, including from much of the Tri-Cities, he said. It would be just four miles south of Kennewick, part of one of the largest urban areas in eastern Washington, he said.