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, where Bonneville Power Administration lines following the waterway could carry the electricity to Western Washington.
Portland-based Avangrid Renewables seeks to build a project that would require more than 500,000 photovoltaic panels, to be spread in long rows of acreage now used for grazing cattle or in a federal conservation reserve, according to a document the company filed with its project application in Klickitat County.
Solar-energy farms have boomed in California, but have gotten off to a much slower start in Washington, where hydropower and — in the early 2000s — wind power have been the major sources of renewable-electricity generation.
One reason solar has had a slower start in Washington is the reduced power generation compared to states farther to the south. The 150-megawatt Avangrid solar farm — if sent to Washington residents — would provide power for some 15,000 homes, according to an analysis of Washington power use and solar production by the Solar Energy Industries Association. In California, that same capacity would generate enough electricity for more than 37,500 homes, according to the industry analysis.
But recently there has been a surge of interest in building new solar farms in Washington as well as in expanding wind power.
This is due, in part, to state lawmakers considering legislation to force 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 in Klickitat County. “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.
It made a major push into wind power in the Pacific Northwest, and more recently expanded into solar with the Gala Project in central Oregon, which opened in 2017 and delivers 56 megawatts of power to Apple, according to the Portland Business Journal.
Paul Copleman, an Avangrid spokesman, on Monday said he could not disclose the customer for the proposed Klickitat County solar project, but 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 is currently used for grazing, with the state charging a $2-per-acre annual lease fee. Avangrid would pay a $300 per-acre annual fee, and Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz is scheduled Wednesday to announce this first-of-its-kind state solar-lease agreement.
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 located near several wind farms, including Big Horn, a project Iberdrola developed near Bickleton, that opened in 2007.
Mo-chi Lindblad, Klickitat 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.
Currently, the planning department has completed initial scoping, and now 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 around combating climate change.
Other Washington solar projects have avoided irrigated farm lands.
Avista, a 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 Avista 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.