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Cattle grazing gives way to big solar farm leases in Central Washington

caption: The new Avangrid Renewables solar farm in Klickitat County, Washington, will rise across the Columbia River from the smaller Wy'East Solar Project, shown here in Sherman County, Oregon.
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The new Avangrid Renewables solar farm in Klickitat County, Washington, will rise across the Columbia River from the smaller Wy'East Solar Project, shown here in Sherman County, Oregon.
Avangrid Renewables

A Portland-based energy developer has signed property leases for a big solar farm in Klickitat County near the Columbia River. When completed, the solar project will be the largest in Washington state.

The Avangrid Renewables solar farm is slated for 1,800 acres that most recently served as grazing land for cattle between Bickleton and Roosevelt, Washington. The development is named the Lund Hill Solar Project.

"This is an exciting announcement for us for a lot of reasons," said Avangrid Renewables spokesman Paul Copleman on Wednesday. "To expand our solar portfolio into new states is important. It's also fulfilling to support this work in Klickitat County where we already have wind projects."

The utility-scale solar farm is sited partly on private ranch land and partly on state-owned land. Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said the long-term lease with the solar developer is the first of its kind for her agency. It's far, far more lucrative than the cattle grazing lease it replaced.

"In this particular project, we were before generating about two dollars per acre per year. We will now be generating 300 dollars per acre," a clearly pleased Franz said in an interview Wednesday. "That will generate not only clean energy for Washington state residents, but also generate a significant amount of money to fund our schools, which is obviously a pressing need."

Franz said two more solar project leases in Klickitat County are in the works on state land. Energy developers have expressed interest in four other central Washington counties — Kittitas, Franklin, Douglas and Adams — as well, she added.

Franz said her agency has been working with ranchers to explain that the state has an obligation to put its working lands "to highest and best use." She said the state Department of Natural Resources would look for other grazing lands to lease to displaced ranchers who are willing to relocate.

Copleman, spokesman for Avangrid Renewables, said the company has lined up a customer for the 150 megawatts of output from the large solar farm, but declined to reveal the customer's name. That amount of solar generating capacity could power 15,000-18,000 average Pacific Northwest homes, according to calculations from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Copleman said he anticipates this project will reach commercial operation by 2020, assuming the county permitting continues to go smoothly.

The Avangrid project will be significantly larger than any other solar farm in operation in Washington currently. A bigger project, however, is on the drawing board for the grounds of a shuttered, open-pit coal mine outside Centralia, Washington. The proposed 180 MW Tono Solar project could replace some of the electricity production of the adjacent TransAlta coal-fired power plant, which is scheduled to close by 2025.

Avangrid operates wind farms in both Oregon and Washington state and has a growing portfolio of utility-scale solar projects including the recently-opened 10 MW Wy'East Solar project near Wasco, Oregon, and the 56 MW Gala Solar Plant near Prineville, Oregon. The Gala Solar project was the largest in Oregon when it opened in late 2017. It supplies renewable power for a nearby Apple Inc. data center. The Wy'East project supplies Portland General Electric.

Avangrid Renewables is a subsidiary of Iberdrola Group, a Spanish energy company with worldwide operations. [Copyright 2019 Northwest News Network]

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