OLYMPIA — A state bill that would temporarily stop state approval of wind and solar energy projects got the backing of Benton, Yakima and Klickitat county officials at a public hearing of a legislative committee last week.

The hearing comes as an application for a huge wind farm along the top of the Horse Heaven Hills south of Kennewick is being considered by the state agency and several companies are interested in developing solar projects in Benton County, according to officials there.

One of the companies, Innergex Renewable Energy, has made public some limited information on its proposal for the new 400-megawatt project.

It is in talks with landowners to develop a solar energy project in the Wautoma Valley west of the Hanford nuclear reservation in the northwest area of Benton County near Highway 241.

House Bill 1871 would delay any Washington state decisions to allow new wind and solar projects until Dec. 1, 2023.

Applications now may be made to the Washington state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) or county governments for approval of significant solar and wind projects.

But the Benton County Commission voted in December to protect farmland by restricting new wind and solar projects to industrial zones. Previously, they were allowed in agriculture and small rural acreage zones.

The governor has the final say on approving wind and solar farms.

The proposed state legislation also would establish a legislative task force to look at the state’s process for approving wind and solar projects, including investigating possible solutions to the mismatch in where electricity is produced versus where it is used.

Republican Rep. Mark Klicker, Walla Walla, who introduced the bill in the state Legislature, said state decisions are made to allow wind and solar projects in rural counties. But the demand for the clean electricity produced in those areas is in urban areas, like the Puget Sound, that produce almost no clean energy.

The state review also needs to include a look at the local tax structure for commercial wind and solar projects, said officials testifying in support of the bill this week at a hearing of the Washington Legislature’s House Environment and Energy Committee.

Clean energy projects are important for meeting the state’s climate change goals, said Josh Weiss, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of Benton County.

But they “really are very controversial in their local communities and they really are a significant scale for what we are used to seeing and have a significant visual impact,” he said.

It’s time to take a pause on the EFSEC process created half a century ago and evaluate how well it works to balance the needs of local residents and the state’s energy needs, he said.

A Tri-Cities Regional Chamber of Commerce survey in 2021 regarding the Horse Heaven Wind Farm received more than 2,000 responses in three days, said Stephanie Barnard, with the chamber.

Scout Clean Energy of Colorado is proposing a wind farm on a 112-square-mile clean energy production site, with wind turbines that would stretch along 24 miles of the Horse Heaven Hills from south of Finley to south of Benton City. The project also would include solar energy production and battery storage.

The developed area of the project would cover about 10 square miles.

The most likely option it is considering would include 244 turbines standing almost 500 feet tall, with a second proposed option including 150 turbines standing up to 670 feet. That’s more than 60 feet taller than the Seattle Space Needle.

Some 79% of those responding wanted greater local involvement in approval of such projects and 78% thought the Horse Heaven Wind Farm was not worth the personal, environmental and economic impacts it would have on the Tri-Cities.

”Tri-Citians are becoming more frustrated and discouraged,” Barnard said. “They feel they have sacrificed so much already of our scenic hillsides, canyons and desert vistas.”

‘Environmental burden’

The views and sunsets are “a beautiful thing” the Tri-Cities can offer to wine tourists, she said.

”There does need to be a look at the broader impact of communities carrying this environmental burden of multiple alternative energy projects,” she said.

Klickitat County, already home to large wind and solar projects, has found that clean energy projects are taxed on a heavy depreciation schedule that quickly decreases the tax benefits touted for local government, said Klickitat Commissioner Dan Christopher.

”The tax base is incredibly unstable,” said Dave Barta, of the Yakima Klickitat Farm Bureau. “As Commissioner Christopher said, it taxes personal property at a declining rate and ensures schools and fire agencies will over time put more burden back on rural landowners to support levies as solar panels are depreciating.”

Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney also spoke in favor of the bill, saying an assessment is needed of the impacts the current approval process is having on agricultural land.

”Now is a perfect time to ask ourselves as citizens, land owners and legislators how to treat the land that feeds us,” Barta said.

Horse Heaven Wind Farm

EFSEC has worked hard to develop a thorough and efficient process for siting energy projects, said Kathleen Drew chairman of the council.

Most wind and solar projects are approved by local governments, but as controversies increase EFSEC may be asked to conduct more reviews, she said.

EFSEC could release an expanded environmental study of the proposed Horse Heaven Wind Farm for public comment this spring, although no decision could be made until late 2023 under the proposed bill.