‘Too close, too big.’ Strong opposition for huge Tri-Cities wind farm, despite jobs

Don’t allow a huge wind energy farm to be built along the ridgeline of the Horse Heaven Hills.

That was the message from more than 50 residents of the Tri-Cities area to a Washington state board at a Wednesday evening online and phone hearing on a proposal to build the Horse Heaven Clean Energy Center just south of the Tri-Cities.

Many said it would industrialize the view for electricity that would be sent to communities far away — communities that perhaps would not allow wind turbines across their own landscapes. Nuclear energy would be a better choice for clean energy, multiple people said.

But about 11 people spoke in favor of the project, most of them talking about the construction jobs the project would create or the nation’s need for clean energy.

The Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, or EFSEC, took two minutes of comment from each speaker on its draft environmental study, called an environmental impact statement, on the proposed project.

EFSEC will make a recommendation on whether to allow the project, with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee making the final decision. There also is a separate adjudication process for disputed issues.

This view from above South Clodfelter Road looks northeast from a proposed Horse Heaven wind turbine site to houses in the Tripple Vista, Summit View, Badger Mountain South and Rancho Reata developments.
This view from above South Clodfelter Road looks northeast from a proposed Horse Heaven wind turbine site to houses in the Tripple Vista, Summit View, Badger Mountain South and Rancho Reata developments.

Scout Clean Energy is proposing up to 244 wind turbines that would stretch along the Horse Heaven Hills from south of Finley to south of Benton City.

The proposed turbines would be about 500 feet tall, unless Scout opts to go with fewer but taller turbines. Then there would be 150 turbines with blades extending about 670 feet high, which is taller than the Seattle Space Needle.

The project site would be 112 square miles, although the developed area of the project would cover only about 10 square miles.

The project also would include solar facilities and battery storage, for a maximum output of up to 1,150 megawatts, depending on the weather.

Much of the land is privately owned and used for dryland wheat farming and livestock grazing. Some of the land is managed by the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.

Tri-Cities construction jobs

The draft study “demonstrates that sufficient analysis has been conducted by the applicant and EFSEC to confirm that with appropriate mitigation the project’s environmental impact does not pose significant detriment and is compatible with the agricultural character of the county,” said Dave Kobus, a Tri-Cities resident and project manager for Scout Clean Energy.

But some of the mitigation measures proposed exceed established precedents and should be reconsidered, he said.

Several union officials and workers also spoke in favor of the project, saying it would bring family-wage construction jobs.

Scout Clean Energy plans a 61,600-acre wind farm on Benton County farm land south of the Tri-Cities along the Horse Heaven Hills ridgeline south of Badger Road.
Scout Clean Energy plans a 61,600-acre wind farm on Benton County farm land south of the Tri-Cities along the Horse Heaven Hills ridgeline south of Badger Road.

One document shows that the first phase of the project would have an average workforce of 299 employees, including 186 local workers and 113 nonlocal workers.

Union officials have obtained a pledge that the contractor for the project would hire from Eastern and Central Washington unions, with an estimated 1,000 workers employed over the years of construction work.

Construction jobs would pay an average of $113,500 a year, said Mike Bosse of the Central Washington Building & Construction Trades Council.

Now, Tri-Cities union members may be driving 90 minutes to reach a job site from the Tri-Cities, and the shorter commute would be welcome, said union member Rylan Grimes.

A few other people, including Graham Zimmerman, a professional mountain climber living in Bend, Ore., said the turbines are needed to fight climate change by producing clean, renewable energy. He’s seen the devastating affects of warming weather firsthand when he climbs, he said.

Then put them in Bend, came the immediate reply from people in the online comments section of the meeting.

Because turbines supply the electric grid only intermittently, their output has to be backed up with other power sources to keep a steady flow on the grid.

In the Tri-Cities area that power also is mostly from what many people at the hearing said are clean, such as hydro and nuclear.

Wind benefits questioned

Dave Drollinger called the wind turbines “virtue signaling” to make people feel good.

The project is unnecessary and will block the growth of Kennewick, which cannot expand to the north because of the Columbia River, he said.

Electricity produced by the project, which also would have solar arrays and short-term battery storage is not likely to be used in Eastern Washington and could be sent to Western Washington or out of state to be used in communities that would not tolerate wind turbines in their scenic vistas, said many speakers.

It the wind turbines were being proposed for the hills around Issaquah in Western Washington, in the Puget Sound or off the coast of Washington, “there would be a lot of outcry,” said Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin.

Several people — including Rick Dunn, general manager of the Benton PUD — discussed an analysis by the Western Resource Adequacy Program.

It concluded that Washington-based wind power provides the lowest effective capacity in the winter compared to wind power from surrounding regions by a factor of two to three in some months.

Utilities could only plan for 8% of the maximum generating capacity of Washington wind turbines in January in the worst case scenario, Dunn said.

Wind farms in Washington are more productive in the summer, but that coincides with times that hydropower is at maximum levels and not as much help is needed from other generating technologies, the PUD policy paper said.

Demand for electricity is high for heating in the winter and cooling in the summer.

Horse Heaven location

The Horse Heaven Hills also is the wrong place for turbines because of their proximity to 300,000 people, said many people commenting at the meeting, particularly those who would live closest to the turbines.

“They are a blight and an eyesore on our beautiful hills,” said Mary Cloninger, a native of the Tri-Cities. The relatively small amount of energy they produce is not worth destroying the landscape, she said.

The boundary of the proposed Horse Heaven Clean Energy Center south of the Tri-Cities is shown. Solar arrays could be in the yellow areas of the map.
The boundary of the proposed Horse Heaven Clean Energy Center south of the Tri-Cities is shown. Solar arrays could be in the yellow areas of the map.

Kevin Self, who built a home near the now proposed wind farm to enjoy the wide open views of rolling hills, said he now could be looking at “an industrial park” of 600-foot turbines.

Commissioner Delvin, a lifelong resident of Benton County, said he had always enjoyed the views of the Horse Heaven Hills in the hours he has spent hiking.

“What the windmills will do, in my mind, is destroy those views,” he said.

Other wind projects in Washington state have been built farther from population areas in more rural areas, said Dave Sharp, a retired manager of Wyoming wind farms, who now lives near the proposed Horse Heaven wind project.

An analysis he worked on showed that between the proposed Horse Heaven wind farm and the nearby and smaller Nine Canyon wind farm, just over 100,000 residents of Benton County would live within six miles of a turbine.

That’s five times more than the estimated 20,000 people who live within six miles of a wind farm across the rest of Washington state, the analysis found.

“This will be disparate treatment of Benton County,” he said.

Eastern Washington has plenty of unpopulated open spaces for “these kinds of low density, inefficient energy producers,” said Jeff Banning, a 20-year resident of Kennewick.

He would rather have a small modular nuclear reactor built in the same location, he said.

Nighttime views

The draft study fails to recognize the concerns of area residents that the wind farm proposal is “too close, too big, too tall,” said Pam Minelli, a member of nonprofit Tri-Cities CARES, or Community Action for Responsible Environmental Stewardship, which was formed to help protect the Horse Heaven Hills habitat and the natural landscape of the Tri-Cities area.

It’s not just the daylight views that are a problem, but the flashing red lights on each turbine at night that are objectionable both to residents and to tourists, she said.

Recreation and tourism provide more than $500 million annually to the local economy, said Lori Mattson, president of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce.

If the project is allowed to proceed, wind turbines should be placed south of the Horse Heaven ridgeline, said Sam Dechter.

But Russell Walker commended EFSEC on what he said was a thorough analysis, including of visual impacts, and said that the project layout would keep many of the turbines out of sight of large numbers of residents.

Birds of Horse Heaven Hills

Concerns about wildlife also were raised at the hearing.

The Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society supports well-planned wind turbine and solar array projects to slow or halt climate change, said Dana Ward, the conservation chairman for the Tri-Cities based group.

But the Horse Heaven project environmental study needs to contain a specific site design and an analysis of reasonable alternatives that address disappearing shrub steppe habitat, birds such as ferruginous hawks and burrowing owls, and animals such as ground squirrels.

The draft study “does not provide enough information to analyze likely environmental impacts,” he said.

Kathryn Knutson said she has a farm within a couple of miles of the proposed wind farm and she has it in a conservation program for the ferruginous hawk, she said.

A ferruginous hawk flies low over sagebrush.
A ferruginous hawk flies low over sagebrush.

“The endangered Washington state ferruginous hawk should not be sacrificed to meet the green energy goals set forth by Washington state,” she said.

Brent Strecker, who has lived in Benton County for 50 years, says he sees firsthand how wildlife will be affected by the turbines as he bikes and hies hawks through the Horse Heaven Hills.

Nearly every time he bikes in the hills he sees hawks. Year round he sees flocks of birds, including sandhill cranes, geese and seagulls, fly overhead, he said. One day this winter the sky was filled with flocks of birds for as far as he could see in all directions.

“Some of the flocks had 500 to 1,000 birds in them, all headed through the proposed turbine area,” he said.

Already turbines are a backdrop to his favorite hunting, hiking and sightseeing destinations in Eastern Washington, he said.

“The idea that my wife and I have to live within this intruding presence of forests of industrial wind turbines in our backyard every time we step outside day or night is dispiriting and frankly downright depressing,” he said.

Washington state already is one of the top renewable energy producers in the nation and adding more wind turbines in the state would do little to nothing to solve the real problem of increasing blackout risk facing Washington residents, he said.