DAILY RECORD – KARL HOLAPPA – The Washington State Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council voted 5-1 to recommend approval of the proposed TUUSSO Energy Columbia Solar project at its monthly meeting in Olympia Tuesday.
The council will review final paperwork for the project at its meeting on Aug. 21, after which it will submit its recommendation to Gov. Inslee. He then has 60 days to approve or deny the project.
The proposal calls for solar panels to be developed on five sites in the Kittitas Valley. The five sites, which total 200 acres would produce 25 megawatts of electricity. The project was granted a fast track approval process by the council in May.
Kittitas County enacted a moratorium on solar development last year and is still working on finalizing a draft on new regulations. If approved by the governor, the state process overrides any regulations at the county level.
RESPONSE TO PUBLIC COMMENT
EFSEC staff member Sonia Bumpus said council staff reviewed all 37 comments received during the most recent public comment period for the project. She said one of the most frequently commented on issue was about impacts to soil on the developed properties.
Bumpus said the site certification agreement requires the applicant to submit an initial site restoration plan prior to construction, and that the plan includes the requirement to restore any disturbed soils to their previous condition. She proposed adding a requirement that a qualified biologist reviews the site restoration plan on behalf of the council.
“We felt like this was a pretty well-covered issue,” she said.
Bumpus said EFSEC had consulted with the Washington Department of Agriculture along with its own consultant and the project applicant.
“Agriculture said they had no concerns with the site remediation of this project and also no concerns with the feasibility of using soil amendments to restore the site,” she said.
Other concerns Bumpus said were brought up during the public comment period involved the potential contamination from toxic metals found in some solar panels, proper disposal and/or salvage of the equipment upon decommission and wetland buffers. She said council staff worked with the project applicant to ensure that wording was included in the site certification to address these issues.
In response to a question from councilmember Jaime Rossman about whether the sites will retain any water shares they have prior to conversion to a solar facility, Bumpus said there is a requirement in the site certification agreements that the certificate holder provide some level of assurance to the council that the shares will be maintained during the life of the facility and will remain the property of the landowner who is leasing the property for solar use.
“The idea being that by maintaining the shares for the water, the landowner would continue to have access to those shares even after the site is restored,” she said. “If they chose to have the facility decommissioned and they wanted to go back to using the land for agricultural purposes, they would have the water they would need to do that.”
Councilmember Rossman said he appreciated the work the council’s staff put into responding to the public comments received on the project, which totaled 111. He said the public comment forum and comment sessions helped the council add conditions to the site certification agreements that demonstrate minimum negative impacts to the sites proposed for solar development.
“The project is beneficial both in terms of providing additional energy but also in particular providing renewable energy,” he said.
Rossman said the staff recognized community concerns about the siting on irrigated land while writing the draft site certification agreements.
“These are very small projects and the property owners are in favor of using them this way,” he said. “This is a temporary use and every indication we have is that the land can be returned to agricultural use in the future.
Kittitas County representative to the council Ian Elliot, the sole no vote on the recommendation said he is concerned about the sites being bundled as one project.
“I think there’s some risk that ultimately if this process is the way we’re going do things in the future that there’s a risk they could be challenged,” he said. “I don’t think it was appropriate because they are different projects and they should have been individually applied for.”
Councilmember Cullen Stephenson said he did research on EFSEC criteria that requires demonstrated need for a proposed energy project and he feels that need has been demonstrated in this instance.
“I’m glad that we are continuing to look at the need for these projects,” he said. “This one will provide renewable energy that helps the state meet its goals.”
EFSEC chair Kathleen Drew thanked the community members who addressed their concerns and support for the project. She said this process was unique in that it was the first time the council had published their draft certification agreements for public comment.
“We’re just really pleased with the response from the public,” she said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the community and the applicant to have a successful project.”
Tuusso Energy Vice President Jason Evans said he feels that his company working with the council was able to resolve most of the issues brought up in public comment.
“I think we were really trying to be sure that we addressed all the comments with additional mitigation measures where necessary,” he said. “I think we are addressing the concerns that we’ve heard.”
Evans said if the project is approved by Gov. Inslee, the construction process could begin as early as December. He said he had no expectations coming into the meeting, but that he was pleased at the outcome.
“I’m excited that the council has chosen to move forward with the projects,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to building them.”
Picture: Brian Myrick – Daily Record