Conversations about renewable energy have a tendency to become quite heated in the Pacific Northwest. Concerns about disturbed cultural resources, cluttered viewsheds, and fragmented wildlife habitats are frequently voiced by locals.
However, a bill that is being debated in the Washington legislature may help to reduce some of these tensions.
House Bill 1216 would set up a formal process for “least conflict siting” which would help identify the least controversial places to build – and avoid common issues with renewable developments.
This sort of process could help increase the pace and scale of renewable development while taking into account concerns from rural and tribal communities, said Adam Maxwell, Audubon Washington’s senior policy manager.
“We can start moving towards flipping the model of development for clean energy toward a more intentional and a more protective model that really gets stakeholders and communities involved from the get-go, and not just react on a kind of project by project basis,” Maxwell said.
Governor asked for the bill. The Washington House approved the bill earlier this month, and the Senate Committee on Environment, Energy, and Technology held a public hearing on it on Wednesday.
Kat Brigham, Board of Trustees Chair for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation said she wants tribes in Eastern Washington to be “fairly considered” for mitigation benefits and reimbursement for work on siting applications, which the Oregon State already makes a payment. Southeast Washington and northeastern Oregon are where you can find the Umatilla Confederated Tribes.
The tribes are not opposed to renewable energy projects, according to Brigham, but it’s critical to consider how to safeguard sacred sites and cultural resources, regardless of when they are found during the renewable energy development process.”We support this, but at the same time, there’s a lot of concern about – we’re going to be doing all of this and not getting treated equitably,” Brigham stated at the open hearing on Wednesday.
“So we’re just asking you to pause and work with us to assure that we’re both getting what we need,” she added.
Planning for the future in this way is incredibly important, she said.
Governor Jay Inslee will be in office in Washington in 2019. By 2050, Jay Inslee signed a bill mandating that all of the state’s energy come from renewable sources.
The state legislature provided funding for a least-conflict solar siting pilot program in 2021 to research the ideal locations for utility-scale solar project construction in order to help achieve those goals. Since then, farmers, ranchers, and environmental groups worked to identify areas that would cause the least harm to all their interests. By June 30, 2023, a final report on the maps the group produced is anticipated.
Several utility-scale renewable energy projects in Washington have rankled neighbors, tribes and wildlife advocates, including the Carriger Solar Project in Klickitat County, the Horse Heaven Hills Clean Energy Project near the Tri-Cities and the Badger Mountain Solar Energy Project in Douglas County.
Maxwell argued that the state needs a formal least-conflict siting process, particularly in such large-scale projects, because each of those projects poses problems, either for people or for wildlife.
“(It will) clear the path for developing in those areas through tribal consultation, local government consultation, and really building support in communities for these projects so that we can have a clean energy transition that is really the best for Washington residents for whether they be humans avian or otherwise,” Maxwell said.
In the upcoming years, Rep. said, more sizable projects will need to be created. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, at an earlier hearing in the House.
“We’re going to need a lot of new energy production in this state as we decarbonize our economy,” Fitzgibbon said. “We are aware that we will also require newer fuels in the future, in addition to more solar farms and electricity transmission.”
Additionally, the bill would establish a council made up of representatives from various state agencies to find ways to enhance the siting and permitting of renewable energy projects, keep track of federal renewable energy projects, and compile a list of federally recognized tribes to consult with.
And it would create an application process for clean energy projects of “statewide significance.” Renewable energy developers may submit an application for an expedited approval process if they are not already going through the state agency Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council process.
In addition, the state Department of Commerce would have to study how energy projects affect rural communities and find ways to more equitably alleviate burdens to rural areas, especially east of the Cascade Mountains, where many renewable energy projects will be built.
According to the fiscal note, the bill would cost $19.5 million for the 2023–2025 biennium and $10.6 million for the 2025–2027 biennium, with an additional cost to reimburse state agencies and local governments for their work on renewable energy project applications. Brigham said she would like tribes to also receive those reimbursements.