Abundant sunshine, a poke from Washington state, and even a few sheep will help a large solar farm in eastern Yakima County start operating sometime in 2024.
Late last week, Yakima County Examiner Gary Coeler approved a conditional use permit for the Black Rock Solar Project, a photovoltaic solar facility located 20 miles east of Moxy on either side of State Route 24.
The project will feature 264,000 solar panels spread over 1,060 acres north of the Rattlesnake Hills and about 8 miles south of the Columbia River as it flows into Benton County and through the site of the former Hanford nuclear reactor.
Brandon Reinhardt, director of development, said renewable energy developer BayWa.re, Solar Projects LLC, based in Irvine, California, hopes to begin construction in the spring of 2023. Construction takes 16 to 18 months, so the goal is to have the facility operational by the end of 2024.
The Black Rock project will generate 94 megawatts, Reinhardt said, capable of supplying nearly 20,000 homes annually in the region with clean and reliable solar energy. This will help Washington State achieve its goal of having utilities produce 100% renewable or carbon-neutral energy by 2045.
Historically, there wasn’t much solar power in Washington. That’s because there are other abundant sources, such as hydropower,” Reinhardt told the Yakima Herald-Republic on May 20 “Given the amount of sunshine and the central location in Washington State, I think Yakima will become a hotbed of solar projects.”
The country seeks more “green” energy
In 2019, Governor Jay Inslee signed the Clean Energy Conversion Act, which requires utilities to fully convert to clean, renewable, non-emissions energy by 2045.
The law establishes the following mandatory objectives:
2025: All electricity utilities must eliminate coal power generation to serve Washington state customers.
2030: All electricity utilities must be GHG-neutral – for example, residual carbon emissions are offset by renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon-reduction project investments, or payments that fund low-income assistance.
2045: All electrical utilities must generate 100% of their energy from renewable or carbon-neutral sources.
At least one other solar project has been approved in Yakima Prefecture. The Goose Prairie Solar Project, to be built on 625 acres eight miles east of Moxee by Seattle-based OneEnergy Renewables, was approved by Inslee in December 2021.
Equipped with solar panels that tend all day to follow the sun’s rays, the Goose Prairie project will produce 80 megawatts of power with the option of on-site battery storage. They are located near State Route 24, Den Best Road and Desmarais Road and will supply power through the Bonneville Energy Department lines at the site.
While Project OneEnergy has gone through the state’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) process, the larger BlackRock project approved last week has gone through the county approval process.
“We were the first to be allowed to cross through the county,” said BayWa.re’s Reinhardt, who said the process leading to approval of BlackRock dates back to 2018.
Reinhardt said the four-year process, which yielded hundreds of pages of analysis and supporting documents, went smoothly and culminated in a public hearing on May 5 before Coulier, the hearing examiner. He issued his decision approving the conditional use permit for BlackRock on May 19.
“The project has been approved at a local level – it only goes through the government’s EFSEC process if we’re trying to overturn a local land use decision, which is not the case for BlackRock,” he added.
In turn, the new Columbia Solar project in Kittitas County has been approved by EFSEC and the governor to generate 25 megawatts on 200 acres at five sites near Ellensburg.
Black Rock details
The first step towards the BlackRock Solar Project involved finding a site. Rancher Zen Badesi, who owns a large farm in eastern Yakima Prefecture, said the company has reached out to him.
“BayWa contacted me a few years ago to lease land for a solar project,” Badesi told the Herald Republic. Helping me is my son Raleigh Badesi – Professor of Law at Penn State University. It deals with renewable energy (companies) all over the world.”
Zein Badesi, like his son, prefers renewable energy such as solar energy, and believes that his property is well suited for large-scale solar operation.
“I think we should build solar farms everywhere in the United States to reduce our dependence on imported oil and help clean up our environment,” Badesi said. “My land near Moxy is well suited for solar farm projects – it is south facing, relatively flat and has easy access to the transmission line. It cannot be used for any purpose other than grazing for a few months of the year.”
BayWa.re Solar (the word stands for “Renewable Energy”) is a subsidiary of BayWa.re Corporation in Munich, Germany. The agriculture-based company started about 100 years ago, Reinhardt said, and is now designing projects such as offshore and onshore wind power and floating solar power plants.
During a public hearing on May 5, the project was described as a solar PV plant that will place panels on about 60% of the 1,060-acre site. County officials report that BayWa.re Solar has designated about 640 acres of buildable space that sidesteps sensitive natural and cultural resources.
Designating buildable areas addresses the only official objection to the project, which is that the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife is seeking greater mitigation of early transition shrubs habitat.
Stan Easley, Head of Conservation at Yakima Valley Audubon Society, testified at a public hearing in favor of the project on the condition that there be full mitigation of the steppe shrub habitat.
In his approval, Cuillier’s audiologist included 17 requirements, most of which included avoiding sensitive environmental areas on the 1,060-acre site and obtaining the appropriate permits during the construction process.
Solar arrays should be installed to prevent glare from extending beyond property boundaries and from affecting drivers on State Route 24. “To the extent possible,” Coulier wrote, electrical cables will be installed underground.
Reinhardt said the determination of who would use BlackRock’s 94 megawatts of power had not yet been finalized, although renewables certainly could help Pacificcorp, the local utility, achieve carbon-neutral goals.
“There is no customer at the moment,” Reinhardt said. He noted that the farm’s solar energy could be sold to a facility, and then sold back to customers. Or it could be sold to Microsoft, Google, or another company that wants to run data centers, he said.
Sheep to provide garden care
Another unique aspect of the Black Rock project is the use of sheep or other grazing animals to tend the lawn around the solar panels.
This will be our pilot project for using sheep. It is very good; “It will allow the sheep to coexist with the solar farm,” Reinhardt said. And financially, it helps us. We will have compact lawn mowers. It would cost us less than if we had to hire someone to mow all that grass.”
Badesi, a local landowner who already uses some of the land for grazing, said he is working with BayWa.re on the peaceful coexistence of livestock and green energy.
“We have some ideas for building agricultural projects on the land in which solar panels will be installed, and grazing sheep is one of those ideas,” he said. Sheep will graze under the solar panels most of the year. The panels will create a shaded area for them in the summer.”
Reinhardt said the project will create about 300 jobs during its construction in 2023 and 2024, and two full-time positions after construction is complete.
“We have worked with the community and with the economic development folks in Yakima from the beginning. These projects usually bring a great deal of economic development.” “Also, it will generate $18 million in tax revenue over the life of the project, which could be up to 35 years.”