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Plans for WA’s largest wind farm slashed in half

By Conrad Swanson, The Seattle Times
Published: April 18, 2024, 7:50am

SEATTLE — A state energy board cut in half the largest wind project proposed in Washington on Wednesday after a yearslong and contentious planning process.

Plans for the $1.7 billion Horse Heaven Hills wind farm originally included up to 222 wind turbines across 24 miles of hillsides near the Tri-Cities, plus three solar arrays covering up to 5,447 acres.

The project faced broad opposition from the jump and over the last three years became mired in the permitting process with Washington’s seven-person Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC. Ultimately, a little-known, endangered hawk emerged as the linchpin to the whole deal.

Considering input from biologists, ecologists and others, EFSEC early Wednesday afternoon recommended that new turbines in the area should not sit within 2 miles of any ferruginous hawk nests, in an attempt to protect the species. Five council members voted for the recommendation while two voted against without any group discussion.

The council’s recommendation represents the broader challenges developers face in finding the right location for these types of massive renewable energy projects Washington needs to wean its grid off fossil fuels and to meet the increasing demand for electricity.

Ferruginous hawk nests are scattered throughout the area and while many, or perhaps all, of them are empty, the hawks have been known to return to the sites years after the fact.

EFSEC’s recommendation effectively halves the number of turbines that could be built for the project.

Officials with the Colorado developer behind the project, Scout Clean Energy, criticized the board’s decision even before it was finalized. They argued the precedent it would set could hamper any major renewable energy project at a time when Washington needs many more wind and solar sites.

Others, like those at the National Audubon Society, praised the decision.

The hawks weren’t the only consideration. The Yakama Nation argued the wind farm would damage the cultural and historical significance of the Horse Heaven Hills. An attorney for Benton County said the project would inappropriately change the use of state-protected agricultural land. And a cadre of local retirees felt the turbines would sink their property values.

EFSEC’s decision isn’t yet final. Dave Kobus, Scout’s senior project manager, said they can petition the council to reconsider. If that fails, EFSEC’s recommendation then heads to Gov. Jay Inslee, who can accept the council’s decision, reject it or send it back to the group for additional work.

An Inslee office spokesperson said the governor was considering the project and could not comment ahead of his decision.

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