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News / Northwest

Inslee has 60 days to decide on controversial Horse Heaven wind farm

The project would span thousands of acres near the Tri-Cities. During years of debate, foes warned of threats to tribal resources, wildlife, and the region’s character.

By Jerry Cornfield, Washington State Standard
Published: May 2, 2024, 7:43am

The largest wind farms ever proposed in Washington now rests with Gov. Jay Inslee.

On Monday, the state’s energy facility siting panel sent Inslee its recommendation for approval of the Horse Heaven wind and solar project, ending a contentious multi-year review. It culminated with regulators paring the Benton County project to curb threats to tribal cultural resources and endangered hawks.

By law, Inslee has 60 days to approve or reject the project, or direct the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council to reconsider aspects of the proposed approval agreements.

“We are now in receipt of the EFSEC recommendation,” said Inslee press secretary Mike Faulk.

Because the governor’s decision is considered quasi-judicial, it will be based solely on the record developed by the siting council and information from outside sources will not be considered, according to the governor’s counsel.

The recommendation arrived one week after the council voted 5-2 to approve the project, which could see dozens of wind turbines and thousands of solar panels installed across a swath of land south of Kennewick. Of the council members in the majority, Inslee appointed one and the others work in his cabinet agencies.

In its decision, the majority acknowledged the difficult trade-offs between heeding community concerns and fighting climate change by reducing Washington’s reliance on power generated from fossil fuels.

“Weighing the imperative to develop new sources of clean energy against the evidence of adverse project impacts, the Council finds it cannot recommend denial of the Project,”  members wrote in their report to Inslee.

Conditions imposed on the project should minimize the most adverse effects of the nearly 500-foot tall turbines and acres of solar arrays, they wrote.

“Like all energy facilities, they will necessarily have impacts. The question is not whether all impacts must be avoided. They cannot be,” the council concluded. “Instead, the question is whether all reasonable measures have been required to mitigate and minimize them with the full understanding of the tradeoffs and benefits.”

Lenny Young from the state Department of Natural Resources, and Ed Brost of Benton County dissented.

For Young, the terms and conditions imposed will not be enough to prevent damage to the traditional cultural properties of the Yakama Nation. Brost expressed concern that the wind towers will be too close to homes and could impede the ability to fight grassland fires.

Balancing costs and benefits

Horse Heaven wind and solar project is a massive undertaking proposed in a footprint spanning roughly 72,500 acres along Interstate 82 south of the Tri-Cities.

Scout Clean Energy of Boulder, Colo., the company behind the effort, submitted its project application to the state on Feb. 8, 2021. It called for up to 244 wind turbines and three solar arrays. The turbines were to be spaced along a 24-mile stretch with the solar panels covering about 5,500 acres.

In the ensuing years of environmental reviews and public hearings, concerns proliferated about the wind farm’s potential to alter the landscape, endanger wildlife habitats, threaten tribal cultural resources and disrupt the economy and character of nearby communities.

The council’s recommendation, and a draft agreement imposing dozens of conditions, reportedly halves the number of turbines and shrinks the spread of solar arrays.

One difficult issue involved protections for the Yakama Nation cultural properties. Tribal leaders shared confidential data with the council that showed how there would be “unavoidable negative impacts.” Slimming the project is seen as one way to reduce those impacts, the council concluded.

Another major hurdle involved protections for ferruginous hawks, a state endangered species with a presence in the area. In the end, the council barred wind turbines within two miles and solar panels within one-half mile of occupied and formerly occupied ferruginous hawk nests.

In the report, the council concluded the buffer would minimize damage to habitat and the risk of the hawks flying into the turbines.

Such a move also would reduce disturbances to the Horse Heaven Hills viewshed and areas used for paragliding and hang gliding, while also cutting the chances of obstructing aerial firefighting, according to the council recommendation.

The council majority concluded that other concerns needed to be balanced against the project’s long-term benefits.

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“Most important is encouraging the development of abundant clean energy at a reasonable cost to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction obligations and to mitigate the significant near-term and long-term impacts from climate change,” the recommendation says.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.