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Feds plan for 14,000-acre ‘clean energy’ park in Eastern WA called shortsighted

By Annette Cary, Tri-City Herald
Published: March 18, 2024, 8:00am

KENNEWICK — The federal government has a new plan for land it has controlled in the Tri-Cities area since World War II.

By April 15 the Department of Energy wants to hear proposals from companies wishing to negotiate leases and develop unused land into clean energy projects, such as solar farms.

The 14,000 acres are at the south end of the Hanford nuclear site by Richland in Eastern Washington.

A decision on how to use the land could be announced in September, according to DOE.

But Tri-Cities development and local government leaders say that DOE is not seeing the big picture when it comes to the land.

In its apparent rush to develop the land, at least until Hanford environmental cleanup is completed, DOE does not appear to be considering what the Tri-City Development Council considers the best use of the land — both to diversify the Tri-Cities economy and for the nation’s effort to build a clean energy future.

“It is important to work now to make sure that our community does have the diversified economy and it stays strong after (Hanford) cleanup is complete or begins to wind down,” said David Reeploeg, TRIDEC vice president of federal programs.

This year about $3 billion in federal money will be spent at the Hanford nuclear reservation to clean up radioactive and chemical waste and contamination left from producing nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program from World War II through the Cold War.

Hanford jobs plus jobs at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, both Department of Energy facilities, account for just over 11% of jobs in Benton and Franklin counties.

But they pay about 23.4% of all wages in the two counties, TRIDEC has said as it looks ahead to replacing well-paid Hanford environmental cleanup jobs when work at the site ramps down or is completed.

While solar energy production may be a good use of some of the 14,000 acres, TRIDEC believes that DOE should also be considering clean industrial development and energy storage.

DOE has indicated it is aware of the community vision, but does not plan to go that route, said Sean O’Brien, executive director of the new Tri-Cities-based Energy Forward Alliance.

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Instead, it appears set to advance with a “short-term, nonstrategic approach,” he said.

TRIDEC vision for Hanford land

Industrial production contributes 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and is a growing share of emissions because it is one of the most difficult sectors to abate and typically involves extensive retrofitting that costs more than twice the cost of building a new clean industrial plant.

New technologies are needed for critical industries, such as fertilizer, cement, batteries, sustainable aviation fuels and chemicals, according to TRIDEC.

It believes that unneeded DOE land near Hanford is the place to show how that can be done.

TRIDEC, with the support of Tri-Cities area governments, has been working toward its vision of the Northwest Advanced Clean Energy Park.

“Our vision includes demonstrating for the country and the world how to deeply decarbonize the electrical grid — and industrial processes,” TRIDEC told DOE. “We believe this demonstration will be critically important in helping the federal government and Washington state meet their aggressive clean energy and decarbonization goals.”

The acreage that DOE wants to use for clean energy generation is the only land near the city of Richland that would be suitable for future clean industrial development, the use that local officials propose for unused Hanford land nearest to Richland.

“Without access to it for development, the Tri-Cities will be severely limited in our economic development and diversification efforts moving forward,” TRIDEC said in a letter when DOE initially asked for information on its proposal.

In the past DOE has worked with TRIDEC to transfer unneeded Hanford land to the community, most recently 1,641 acres adjacent to Richland in a transfer approved in 2015.

Atlas Agro wants to build the Pacific Green Fertilizer Plant, billed as the world’s first carbon-free fertilizer plant at the corner of Stevens Drive and Horn Rapids, land that was formerly part of the Hanford site.

Other companies are interested in decarbonization or clean energy, including for battery and decarbonized steel manufacturing, said TRIDEC.

Interest in the land has accelerated, said Karl Dye, president of TRIDEC.

TRIDEC says some of the land should be reserved for its vision of an advanced clean energy park, including a north-south corridor of land that would link the land transferred in 2015 with land that Energy Northwest leases.

“This co-location provides an extraordinarily unique opportunity to master plan and develop a large-scale, sustainable, clean energy generation and a decarbonized advanced clean manufacturing industrial hub,” TRIDEC told DOE.

“There are few, if any, places in the country where this would be possible, and probably none that have the available land, technical expertise, highly skilled workforce, robust existing electrical transmission and transportation infrastructure, all located right next to one of the nation’s top experts on clean energy, grid-scale energy storage, and the advanced grid — DOE’s on Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,” it said.

Energy Northwest is working toward developing an advanced small nuclear reactor on its leased land adjacent to the 14,000 acres DOE wants to use for clean energy development.

The reactor would not only produce electricity continuously — unlike solar or wind production — but high temperature steam that could be used by nearby industries, in TRIDEC’s vision.

Industry in the corridor TRIDEC has developed could share heat, power, water, wastewater and water treatment.

Short life for clean energy projects

The request for proposals, or qualifications, that DOE released this month requires that projects be torn down as Hanford cleanup is completed.

That would be challenging for the projects that TRIDEC wants on some of the land.

“It is hard to imagine anyone is going to be willing to invest a billion-plus dollars in capital investment on land they don’t own that has to be torn down by some undetermined date in the future,” Reeploeg said.

What the DOE request for proposals does seem to lend itself to is solar projects, which have a 20 to 30 year lifetime, and could be torn down at the end of the Hanford cleanup work, he said.

Wind turbines are not a likely option because their vibration would interfere with work at the adjacent LIGO Hanford observatory, a project that measures the minute ripples in space-time caused by gravitational waves from cosmic events such as colliding black holes.

TRIDEC is not opposed to solar, saying even 10,000 of the 14,000 acres could be used for solar. But that would not provide the baseload, firm power that the Northwest energy grid needs or the family-wage jobs that will be needed eventually to replace Hanford job, Reeploeg said.

O’Brien is hopeful, after briefing Washington congressional leaders about the local vision for the land, that DOE may delay development of the corridor that is of highest interest.

Earlier TRIDEC had asked DOE to transfer 19,000 acres to TRIDEC, which would work with local governments, regional tribes and others in the community to develop or lease the land in accordance with both the Tri-Cities and DOE’s “Cleanup to Clean Energy” vision.

Or it could transfer just the corridor between Energy Northwest and the 1,641 acres most recently transferred to the community, TRIDEC proposed.

Another option would be for DOE to partner with the community and regional tribes to help the Tri-Cities advance its industrial development vision.

DOE’s current “rushed” approach would not only limit the Tri-Cities ability to develop, but could harm the communities’ ability to develop jobs for the future if it does not support the vision of the Northwest Advanced Clean Energy Park, O’Brien said.

Solar farms would create few long-term jobs after construction is completed.

Now the portion of the 580-square-mile Hanford site that was originally used as a security perimeter is part of the Hanford Reach National Monument and much of the remaining land is designated in the Hanford land use plan for preservation and conservation.

The largest land designated for industrial use at Hanford is in the southeast corner of the site by Richland, where DOE is seeking interest in clean energy production projects.

Land for the Hanford site was seized by the federal government in 1943 for a secret wartime project to produce plutonium for the world’s first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert and then the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, helping end World War II.

The U.S. government had good reason to take the land, but as it is no longer needed it should be turned back over to the community, Dye said.

“It really is our future,” he said.