Solar-energy farms have boomed in California, but have gotten off to a much slower start in Washington. But recently there has been a surge of interest in building new solar farms as well as in expanding wind power.
One of the Northwest’s most ambitious solar projects has been proposed for 1,700 acres of private and public land in Klickitat County near the Columbia River.
Portland-based Avangrid Renewables seeks to build a project that would require more than 500,000 photovoltaic panels to be spread on acreage now used for grazing cattle or put in a federal conservation reserve, according to a document the company filed with its project application in Klickitat County and an Avangrid spokesman.
Solar-energy farms have boomed in California, but have been slow to take hold in Washington, where hydropower and wind power provide most of the renewable-electricity delivered by utilities.
The Avangrid solar farm will have a 150-megawatt capacity. An Avangrid spokesman Tuesday did not provide an estimate of how many Washington homes such a project could serve. If the Klickitat County site produced power at the national average for photovoltaics, it could send electricity to more than 28,000 homes, according to an analysis by the Solar Energy Industries Association.
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Recently, there has been a surge of interest in building solar farms in the Pacific Northwest as well as in expanding wind power.
This has been helped along by state lawmakers’ consideration of legislation to require utilities to clamp down on carbon emissions generated by coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants, but also by tech companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook, interested in securing carbon-free electricity for their energy-guzzling centers that store information.
“All of a sudden we have got people poking around, leasing land and starting studies,” said Dana Peck, executive director of the Greater Goldendale Area Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t know whether the market is utilities or direct sales (to data centers).”
Avangrid is a subsidiary of Iberdrola Group, which is based in Spain and is a major global developer of renewable-energy projects.
Iberdrola made a major push into wind power in the Pacific Northwest, and more recently expanded into solar with Avangrid’s 56-megawatt Gala Project in Central Oregon, which opened in 2017 and delivers power to Apple, according to the Portland Business Journal.
The Avangrid spokesman, Paul Copleman, on Monday did not disclose the customer for the proposed Klickitat County solar project, but said he hoped to be able to make that announcement later this week.
The Lund Hill project has generated excitement within the state Department of Natural Resources, which has leased 480 acres to Avangrid. That land has been used for grazing, with the state charging a $2-per-acre annual lease fee. Avangrid would pay a $300 per-acre annual fee, according to a department spokesman.
Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz on Wednesday announced this first-of-its-kind state solar-lease agreement.
Franz says the department has been actively promoting solar development on state lands. So far, state officials have identified more than 30 tracts as potential sites within the 3 million acres managed by the Department of Natural Resources
The state has been marketing those areas to solar developers, and some 15 companies have expressed interest. The goal is to have 500 megawatts of solar capacity operating on leased state lands by 2025, offering a new source of state revenue that is funneled to schools and counties, according to Franz.
“We are open for business. We have land that is well suited for solar generation,” Franz said in a Wednesday interview.
Jesse Gronner, an Avangrid vice president, said there is “still a lot of work” to move the Klickitat project forward “but we think it’s a great site for a solar project.”
In Klickitat County, Avangrid in October filed an initial project application that notes the solar panels would be mounted on equipment that rotates, following the path of the sun through the course of the day to maximize power generation. That document notes that the solar farm would be near several wind farms, including Big Horn, a project Iberdrola developed near Bickleton, that opened in 2007.
Mo-chi Lindblad, the county’s planning director, said the initial project document outlined some 4,000 acres that could potentially be used for solar panels. But the developer will eventually settle on 1,700 acres within that zone.
The planning department has completed initial scoping, and is waiting for Avangrid to submit a draft environmental document to move forward with the permitting process, according to Lindblad.
This is the first solar farm to be proposed for Klickitat County.
Elsewhere in Washington, another solar development triggered controversy due to concerns about ceding prime farmland to energy production.
A 25-megawatt project in Kittitas County is scheduled to be built on 200 acres, some of which are irrigated. The project sparked opposition from critics, including Kittitas County commissioners who did not want to see the irrigated farmland included in a lease. That project went through a state review process and was approved, over protests from county commissioners, last October by Gov. Jay Inslee, who is centering his presidential campaign on combating climate change.
Other Washington solar projects have avoided irrigated farm lands.
Avista, a Spokane utility, in December opened a 28-megawatt solar farm in Eastern Washington’s Adams County on acreage in conservation reserve that had not been farmed for more than 30 years, according to spokeswoman Mary Tyrie.
In Western Washington, TransAlta has proposed a 180-megawatt solar plant at the site of the now closed Centralia coal-mine site in Lewis County.