Week of August 3, 2009
Snapshot from the Field
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Up to the Crossroads
by ADAM BRUNS,
managing editor, Site Selection
The gap between sections of the Wenatchee National Forest in central Washington has always boasted the key infrastructure asset of I-90 as it winds its way to and from Seattle, 80 miles (129 km.) to the northwest. Now it will boast a new kind of infrastructure asset: a 400-acre (162-hectare) solar park called the Teanaway Solar Reserve, located just north of the town of Cle Elum.
Designed to generate 75 megawatts of power, the photovoltaic (PV) solar farm is the biggest ever proposed in the Northwest U.S., and supporters say it's on track to become "the largest completed PV solar project in the United States." They also say it will create "hundreds of new green manufacturing jobs," due to their plans to construct a $100-million-plus solar panel manufacturing plant.
The Teanaway operation will be led by Managing Director Howard Trott, long known as a close associate of Seattle mega-entrepreneur Craig McCaw.
"I spent 22 years working with Craig's investment company, but he is not part of this project in any way," said Trott at a July 9 press conference. He said Teanaway was a private concern, so no further information about the project's backers would be forthcoming. Asked if federal stimulus funds might help back the project, he said they might have some monetizing potential, but "we chose to go ahead and start permitting this project without knowing what that might mean to us."
Trott, a Washington native who currently calls Kirkland his home, says his venture never really looked beyond his home state. His only previous experience in the sector is his work on sustainability initiatives at resorts and in housing, including a housing development near the Schweitzer Mountain Resort, a skiing development in northern Idaho, which McCaw-backed Harbor Resorts took over in 1999. Harbor Resorts dissolved in 2005, leaving the property in the hands of McCaw Investment Group.
Howard Trott currently works for Schweitzer Mountain Real Estate, which named him president in 2008. After a previous development known as Trappers Creek was put on hold and re-evaluated, work began on a new sustainable and affordable housing development at the resort called Mountainside at Schweitzer, which just broke ground in July under Trott's leadership.
"My background has been in sustainable resort development," said Trott. "I don't have direct solar manufacturing experience, but I've done a lot of complicated projects, and have a keen interest on the renewable side."
According to the Teanaway Solar Reserve Web site, Trott recently led a project team in successfully converting James Island from an unusable, contaminated island in the gulf of British Columbia into a model of environmental sustainability. "Once an ammunition manufacturing facility, James Island was completely polluted with lead and nitroglycerin," reads his official biography on the site. "Howard took the island from a state of toxic contamination to one of the most clean, green, environmentally conscious self-contained islands in the world. James Island now boasts green modular homes, electric cars and organic gardens."
The renewal of the island, located off the Central Saanich Peninsula near Vancouver, was driven in part by the conservation aims of McCaw, who originally bought the island in 1994 for $19 million, and who leased a whole block of property in nearby Sydney-by-the-Sea in 2006.
The Teanaway venture has yet to choose whether its PV technology will be of the thin-film or the polycrystalline variety. It also has yet to choose from among several possible manufacturing plant sites in Cle Elum.
The Local Route
"The sites we've looked at range from three to 10 acres [1.2 to 4 hectares]," said Trott. "They're blessed with a rail link through there, which may be valuable to us. One will probably win out over the other because of transportation issues."
While the team already has been talking to silicon producers in the state such as REC in Moses Lake, it's not necessarily looking to be its own end user in the manufacturing process itself.
"We're not a panel manufacturer, but we will get the manufacturing to come to us, and help them by making the facility that will make this work," said Trott. "As opposed to shipping all these panels in cardboard boxes, it makes sense to supply them locally. With the state tax incentives, we think the plant will stay there."
Trott also hopes to see a neighborhood of green business and research rise around that plant — not unlike the self-contained green world on James Island.
"We've talked with Central Washington University, and we're going to have this be part of a learning process too," he explained. "We want it to be part of an area that spawns other companies. We've heard of all kinds of interesting technologies, and we want to work with the university and other state universities to spawn these companies. It's large enough to have test areas inside our facility."
Project officials hope to submit the Reserve's conditional use permit application to county authorities by August 17th, begin construction by spring 2010, and be in full operation as early as fall 2011.
"There are two paths to permitting an energy resource in the state," explained project spokesperson Matt Steuerwalt. "The state process is the energy site evaluation process. You can certainly do renewable energy permitting through that, but it was set up initially to do big thermal projects." The other route is the one taken by the Teanaway team, which is to go through county permitting. Steuerwalt said it's a land use decision, based around a natural resource other than timber.
"It's a permitted use on the land," stated Trott. "We do not need any state or federal permits."
The Teanaway project's 400,000 panels will be distributed at approximately 1,000 panels per acre on a parcel of already logged land owned by American Forest Land. Teanaway Solar Reserve has signed a 20-year lease for the property, which has been logged through four generations of trees. Surrounded by 50-ft. ponderosa pine, the site cuts through the hills and is mostly obscured from view. CH2M Hill has been retained to provide site design, conduct environmental studies and manage the conditional use permit process with Kittitas County.
Trott says CH2M Hill is doing a visual corridor study so that the site is primarily visible only to flyover observers. Unlike wind turbines, solar power plants work quietly too, mollifying some who would raise objections to its presence in the forest.
For a region that brands itself as the "Crossroads of Washington State," the solar project combines with concurrent wind and solar projects to put Kittitas County in the cross-hairs of renewable energy generation.
More Sun Than You Think
The Desert Claim Wind Power Project from French-owned enXCo was first proposed in 2004, and received the endorsement of the Economic Development Group of Kittitas County. It calls for 120 wind turbines with a capacity of 180 megawatts, located across 5,237 acres (2,119 hectares) owned by eight private landowners. Just a week after the Teanaway Solar Reserve announcement, a public hearing was scheduled on the enXco project, which would supply enough power for 57,000 homes, as opposed to the 47,000 homes that could be powered by the prospective solar farm. (In 2007, county commissioners challenged the state's approval of a separate project, the Kittitas Valley Wind Power Project.)
At this point, Desert Claim is all systems go. County officials are also working with Central Washington University to have the area officially declared an Innovation Partnership Zone, under a new program of the Washington Dept. of Commerce.
Since it costs approximately $1 million a mile to build transmission infrastructure, helping make the Teanaway site viable is the presence of two transmission lines, said Trott — one from Bonneville Power Administration and the other from Puget Sound Energy (PSE). However, it may be early in the process to discuss transmission agreements:
"PSE's transmission group has not received an inquiry from Teanaway on this proposed project," said PSE spokesperson Roger Thompson, "but we'll give such an inquiry, if it's made, careful consideration."
Puget Sound Energy is familiar with yet another renewable energy project in Kittitas Valley, its Wild Horse Wind and Solar facility in Ellensburg. A $100-million expansion now under way is delivering 22 new wind turbines to add to the 127 that have been in operation there since December 2006. The expansion is taking place on 960 acres (389 hectares) of undeveloped land PSE purchased in 2008 immediately to the north of the existing 9,150-acre (3,703-hectare) Wild Horse site.
Due to be complete by the end of 2009, the expansion will bring the complex's capacity to 273 megawatts. According to PSE, in 2008, Wild Horse paid more than $1.3 million dollars in taxes to Kittitas County, a figure that is expected to increase following the expansion, and has created jobs for 25 permanent full-time employees for facility operations and maintenance, in addition to more than 150 temporary jobs during both the initial construction and again during the current expansion.
The site includes a 500-kilowatt solar project, as well as a renewable energy visitor's center that PSE says has been visited by more than 30,000 people from around the world since it opened.
Another solar project in the community is the 57-kiloweatt City of Ellensburg Community Solar Project, which supporters call the first true community solar project in the nation, as it allows individuals and businesses contributing to its operation to in turn receive direct credits on their electricity bills for the green power produced by the system, via a unique "virtual net metering" arrangement.
Andy Wappler (rhymes with Doppler) is in fact a meteorologist, as well as a spokesman for PSE. He weighed in on the Teanaway project in a July 10 blog entry:
"I know, it sounds more like a punchline than an energy plan, but the truth is we have a pretty fair amount of sun in our region," he wrote of solar plans for the region. "You just have to know where to look."
In fact, the area east of the Cascades gets an average of 300 days of sun a year — a frequently cited statistic trotted out by Trott and by Wappler.
"If you spend most of your time west of the Cascades, you're in a very different climate than the weather world that is anywhere east of the summit at Snoqualmie, Stevens or any other mountain pass," wrote Wappler. "Our Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility is the largest solar array currently in the Northwest, and works well in part because the Cascades block the incoming clouds from the Pacific." He goes on to note that while the southwestern U.S. is usually cited as the best location for solar power, extreme heat can make a dent in the efficiency of solar panels. "That means a cooler, but still sunny, area such as Central and Eastern Washington, could have great potential," he wrote.
Also helping make the Teanaway project viable is a family of state incentives and tax breaks in Washington. First, over and above the 30-percent federal tax credit is a state sales tax break on the machinery and equipment involved in the manufacture of power. Second, a new state law creating incentives for homeowners to use solar power increases the incentive if the product is manufactured in state.
The project team says its project was spurred by the state's renewable electricity standard, which mandates that the state's largest utilities derive at least 15 percent of their retail electric load with renewable energy by 2020. Initiative 937 was passed by Washington voters in November 2006.
"This is exactly the economic development I had in mind in 2006 when I spearheaded passage of I-937, which creates the necessary incentives to provide homegrown, clean energy and local jobs," said U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) in a statement.
Hydroelectric power producers don't get to be called "renewable" in the lingo of the new law, though efficiency improvements they implement that don't involve new water diversions or impoundments can be counted. The 2009 state legislature was the first to consider revisions to the law — such as the wishes of many to include hydroelectric power as renewable — that would not require a two-thirds majority vote. But no "weakening" of the existing law has yet passed muster.
Incentives or no, hydropower in the Pacific Northwest has long been a low-cost business growth driver. How can solar compete?
"The dropping prices on the panels help," said Trott. "Tax incentives help. We have green renewable targets coming up shortly that utilities have to meet — this is renewable, and hydropower is not. And things are changing in terms of what people are willing to pay for the power."
The Teanaway team is counting on regional demand to kick in once the solar farm's initial deployment requirements have been met.
"It's a great market making mechanism for us," said Steuerwalt. "But this is also a state where there is an ethic towards these types of projects."