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Solar controversy: EOZ founder rebuts claims

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Controversy over a planned solar farm near Goldendale is heating up—a meeting is being held tonight on the topic at the Goldendale Grange at 6 p.m. But controversy is stirring as well over the tactics and accuracy of information about the project. In an earlier story, The Sentinel reported on the claims of CEASE (Citizens Educated About Solar Energy), founded by Greg Wagner in opposition to the project. In this article, a detailed response to the claims made by CEASE is provided, by the man who founded the county Energy Overlay Zone, Dana Peck. Peck cites each assertion made by CEASE, then provides his response. At the end is a brief overview of how the EOZ came about.

Land Is being secretively acquired and leased

This is an accurate statement. Developers generally negotiate with landowners one-on-one, a situation preferred by both parties as they attempt to arrive at a mutually agreed upon price. I suspect Mr. Wagner did the same; although I do not know that for a fact, I doubt he informed his neighbors before purchasing his five-acre lot.

6,000 acres will be covered with 2.5 million solar panels and surrounded by a chain link fence.

I don’t know how many acres have been leased by Cypress and Invenergy, and I suspect Mr. Wagner doesn’t either. It is a large number and runs north of Rt. 142 on both sides of Knight Road. It would be surrounded by a fence, usually chain link, for insurance and security reasons. The number and type of solar panels is also not known. While the EOZ application, when filed, will address layout of the project, solar panels are not purchased until just before construction. That is a function of the constant downward price of solar panels.

When constructed it will reduce the value of your home and make it difficult to sell, impact the enjoyment and quality of life, destroy the natural beauty, kill wildlife during construction, destroy wildlife habitat, damage the ecosystem, pollute ground water, and create potential battery fire/explosion and emission of deadly toxic fumes.

I’ll respond to these items in turn:

When constructed it will reduce the value of your home and make it difficult to sell

This is the most prevalent theme voiced by opponents of any project. Locally, it was a frequent statement by wind project opponents, claiming that no new residential would occur where wind turbines could be seen—a statement clearly not borne out by experience.

The irony of this statement in this context is that it denies the right of his neighbors—most of whom lived in the County at the time the EOZ was open for public comment—to profit from the proposed solar projects. Given the lease rates in solar contracts, it is unlikely a rancher would take land generating good earnings out of production and sign a solar lease.

Impact the enjoyment and quality of life and destroy the natural beauty

Much like the previous assertion, this assumes that the landowners signing these leases are operating public parks, not commercial properties.

My favorite response to this statement was made by a Centerville rancher some years back: “No one ever offered to pay me for my view.”

Kill wildlife during construction, destroy wildlife habitat, damage the ecosystem, pollute ground water

The County Planner responsible for overseeing energy overlay zone permit applications addresses all these points in the permit criteria and assures County regulations are met. The EOZ does not supersede pre-existing County requirements; it provides additional criteria—and incentives to meet those criteria—on project developers. That is why it is called an “overlay.”

Potential battery fire/explosion and emission of deadly toxic fumes

Although I do not know if the proposed projects plan to include batteries, there is a growing trend to include them at solar projects to provide additional hours of renewable electricity output to sell after sunset.

There have been incidences of battery fires in solar and electric vehicle applications, much like the occasional wind turbine failure, but project developers and the utilities that buy either the output or the entire project have major incentives to assure all safety criteria are met. It is not a guarantee this will not happen, but it makes it highly unlikely.

Permit conditions can assure these installations meet best industry practices, and the equipment itself is far removed from residences.

We will receive none of the electricity generated

This is undoubtedly the case, and it is the same for wind power generated in the county. Klickitat PUD can purchase electricity from BPA at much lower prices than local renewable energy projects can get from utilities serving urban markets, most of which also have to meet renewable portfolio standards set at the state level.

Renewable energy generated in the immediate area—and the Mid-Columbia is one of the top five renewable energy producing regions in the country—is an export product, much like Pacific Northwest wheat.

In my corporate days, this was one of my favorite questions to answer when signing leases with ranchers. It was fun to say, “We’ll sell our electricity to the lowest bidder when you sell your wheat to the lowest bidder.” Always got the same response.

Only a few landowners, Invenergy, and Cypress Creek will make money

“Only a few landowners, Invenergy, and Cypress Creek will receive direct payments” is more accurate.

Rural economic development that directly benefits ranchers and farmers is rare. Nationwide, renewable energy projects have been a rural economic development success story. In Klickitat County, they represent a significant source of revenue for landowners (in the form of royalty payments), the County roads and general fund, and the numerous special tax districts (hospital, school, fire, cemetery) where the projects are built. And the projects contribute to the County having the lowest tax rate in the state.

When solar panels reach the end of their productive life, they cannot be disposed of in a landfill

This is not accurate on two levels: first, small numbers of broken panels are being landfilled, although probably not in the Rabanco site, which has more stringent criteria than the Arlington, Oregon, site. And second, the industry is too new to have dealt with large-scale decommissioning of entire sites, a topic addressed in the next response.

When the solar panels are no longer profitable to the corporations, they will file bankruptcy and walk away rich. The county residents will be financially responsible for the clean-up cost, not the money-making landowners who leased their land to the corporations.

Totally wrong. All County permits for renewable energy projects include a section providing for the project owner to create a fund to remove the project should the project be closed. Wind projects have the added requirement to remove the top three feet of the tower foundation to allow for future agricultural use; solar project installation lacks that specific provision since they don’t have massive foundations and are much easier to remove.

More likely than decommissioning a permitted project, the sites will probably be upgraded to more productive versions of the technology as is being seen at county wind sites where “repowering” has occurred.

The County officials have failed to study the full impact of this project. County ordinances

are inadequate and do not protect us.

Again, uninformed and wrong. The County has recognized its competitive advantage in renewable energy—most specifically wind and solar—since the early 2000s. It has thoroughly studied County resources for renewable energy development in a County-funded EIS that explicitly addresses wind and solar, held multiple hearings, and defined a publicly approved specific area of the County where a specialized permit process is available with the intent of drawing projects to that area.

That level of analysis and protection—which both anticipated and preceded specific project development—is, at this time, unique in the U.S. and is more comprehensive than what most state or local government permitting entities bring to bear. I have permitted projects on federal land in Idaho, on land overseen by state-level entities in Washington and Wyoming, and at the county level in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Montana, and California. None of them have the underpinning of the EOZ’s EIS or the extensive public hearings in advance of a specific project seen in the overlay’s ordinance.

This solar farm is intentionally being kept quiet to avoid opposition

The cheap shot reply is, “Then how do you know about it?”

The actual reply is that no permit application has been filed by either Cypress Creek or Invenergy, so technically there is no “real” project to discuss in the eyes of the County. Land has been leased, and informal conversations have been held to determine permit application requirements, but no application has been filed. Once the permitting process is formally initiated, developers are mandated to hold a well-publicized public meeting to explain the project. Reinforcing the County Commission’s long-time commitment to achieving economic development that is a fit with Klickitat County culture, there have recently been two County workshops open to the public during which these concerns have been discussed. No final decision has been made on how to proceed, but there is an understanding that nothing has been raised that hasn’t been previously addressed in the EOZ process and related EIS.

We are not against renewable energy when done responsibly with the citizens’ rights protected and their concerns addressed and fully resolved.

I could not agree more. In the absence of the EOZ, only developer criteria drives the siting process. In Klickitat County, siting is guided by a process that began with local public input and a county-wide EIS and now has twenty years of operating experience. Project-specific concerns are weighed against planning criteria and addressed within that process by permit conditions administered by the county planner.

A brief history of the Energy Overlay Zone

The County’s experience with wind-power development in the mid-1990s prompted adaptation of the well-established overlay zone concept to renewable energy when the wind industry began to revive in 2000. As a former wind developer then serving as Director of Economic Development, County Planning Director Curt Dreyer (County lead staffer on wind project development in the 1990s) and I were determined to give the public a role in deciding where such projects would be welcomed by local residents prior to specific projects being proposed. In addition, rather than depend on privately funded environmental impact statements (EIS) for projects, we felt a County-funded, County-wide EIS [Environmental Impact Study] would provide more confidence to residents that the results were impartial. That same EIS could then be used by County staff to define more detailed, project specific studies when developers proposed a project. Also, developers could use the County’s EIS to determine whether they wanted to develop in a specific area prior to acquiring land.

Land-use studies focused on renewable energy projects. The main advantage was transmission lines linking the County to urban markets paying a premium for electricity from renewable projects. The environmental analyses, which included an extensive avian study of the entire county, were designed to address known and potential issues associated with wind and solar projects.

It’s important to recognize that in early 2000, when this project began, neither wind nor solar technology deployment was widespread, but their land use requirements and impacts were generally understood. The visual impact and setback provisions in the EOZ reflect that, as do the other studies incorporated into the County’s EIS.

Public hearings took place during the EIS process and when the County Planning Commission reviewed the proposed adoption of the zone, which were well-publicized and well attended. Landowners not wanting to be in the EOZ could opt out, as did a large area around Snowden.

Developers have a large incentive to locate projects within the EOZ and meet whatever criteria are established. The EOZ, having been made a part of the County code through a public process, gives the county planner authority to review project applications, determine additional impact studies, and grant the final permit approval. Unlike the conditional use process, this provides a predictable timeframe, something all developers want.

More recent arrivals moving into the EOZ could, through their realtors, have been aware of this history. The presence of large wind projects should, at the very least, have suggested that Klickitat County was a place where renewable energy development occurred.