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Critical step ahead for planned Yakima County solar projects

Sept. 22, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 22, 2022 at 8:59 p.m.

By Joel Donofrio Yakima Herald-Republic

Within the next month, the public will have a chance to weigh in on an environmental review of two proposed solar energy projects in eastern Yakima County.

Plans for what should be included in the study of the High Top and Ostrea solar projects proposed along state Route 24 on the county’s eastern border were discussed in a meeting Tuesday by the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

The two 80-megawatt solar farms – separate projects because they would be served by different power lines in the area – are proposed by Cypress Creek Renewables, a solar energy and storage company based in Santa Monica, California.

The two sites cover roughly 1,600 acres each, with the solar panels and other equipment planned on 613 and 908 acres, respectively, almost entirely north of Route 24 and about 20 miles east of Moxee.

At Tuesday’s meeting, EFSEC’s Director of Siting and Compliance Ami Hafkemeyer said the developer is working with state officials on Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance or MDNS, which determines if a project will meet county, state and federal regulations.

During a June 1 public hearing on the projects, questions regarding the solar farms’ effects on the area’s wildlife and shrub steppe ecosystem were raised by the Yakima Valley Audubon Society and the North Yakima Conservation District. They asked EFSEC to consider the combined impact of the two proposed projects and two other nearby solar projects that have already been approved.

The Goose Prairie Solar Project, about 8 miles east of Moxee near Route 24, Den Beste Road and Desmarais Road, was approved by Gov. Jay Inslee in December 2021, and the Black Rock Solar Energy Project – adjacent to the High Top and Ostrea sites – was approved in May by Yakima County Hearing Examiner Gary Cuillier.

“When you look at the landscape from Goose Prairie to the Benton County (solar project), you will find a very effective habitat fence,” North Yakima Conservation District Manager Michael Tobin said during the June public hearing. “The only reason these are being sited here is because of previous ill-suited siting of the BPA (Bonneville Power Administration) line.

“You need to look at these (solar projects) as a whole,” he added. “It’s not ‘vacant land,’ it’s used as forage. It’s used as habitat.”

EFSEC council chair Kathleen Drew and council member Stacey Brewster asked if a map showing the project and their effect on wildlife and the environment would be part of the MDNS.

Hafkemeyer said those issues would be contained in the environmental plan, which she expects to be issued in the next few weeks followed by a 15-day public comment period to be completed before the next EFSEC monthly meeting, scheduled Tuesday, Oct. 18.

The council also may decide on granting developer Cypress Creek Renewables’ request for an expedited site certification process for High Top and Ostrea. If the request is approved, the EFSEC Council will forward a recommendation to the governor on the projects within 60 days.

Also on Tuesday, the EFSEC council received an update on the previously approved Columbia Solar project in Kittitas County from Owen Hurd, a representative of its Seattle-based developer, Tuusso Energy.

There are three solar panel sites for the Columbia project, and the Penstemon site off Tjossem Road near Interstate 90 is operational, Hurd said. The adjacent Camas site is nearly finished and expected to be “substantially completed” by the end of this month.

The Urtica site, near the Damman School to the south and west of Ellensburg, has much of the infrastructure set up, including the solar panel arrays. Financial issues have delayed the mechanical completion of the project, which now is expected sometime in October, Hurd said.

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