Wind deal will tap county planners

PGE’s purchase of Phase II of a wind energy project will require hundreds of planning hours.

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DAYTON — Columbia County officials are working to assess the planning needed in the wake of Portland General Electric’s announcement it will buy development rights to the Lower Snake River Wind Facility Phase II.

Kim Lyonnais, the director of county planning, said the move will require a significant amount of time from his office. While he has not finished calculating the exact needs, he estimated that 750 planning hours would be needed on site before building can begin.

PGE said Monday it anticipates closing the deal to buy development rights from Puget Sound Energy, which built and operates Phase I of the sprawling wind farm, in August. To be eligible for $253 million in federal renewable energy tax incentives, Phase II would need to break ground before the end of the year.

Lyonnais said his office is already stretched thin, especially because one staff member does inspection work in Waitsburg and Dayton. He has requested an additional full time-staff member for next year, in part to handle the increased volume of work from the wind project, and also to address a backlog of code enforcement violations and other issues.

PGE will be required to pay the county for building permits, and has also agreed to reimburse the county for reasonable costs relating to permitting. Building permits were $1,200-$1,500 per turbine for the county’s last wind project, though this may change slightly once the county gets new state building code guidelines in July. Lyonnais said he hoped to reach an agreement with PGE to cover the costs of extra staffing.

“We’ve always worked well with the utilities on the projects,” he said. “They understand the impacts it puts on communities.”

PGE spokesperson Steve Corson said the utility planned to work with the county to determine what reasonable costs the county would incur.

PGE has requested three changes to the county’s existing zoning code and wind turbine development standards, which the county plans to resolve before the sale is complete.

Currently, the county zoning code prohibits significant alterations of nonconforming buildings and structures, and also prohibits their restoration if more than 50 percent of the structure is destroyed. PGE has requested a modification that exempts energy-generating facilities from these provisions. They have also asked that a section of the development requirements that describes decommissioning requirements for investor-owned electric utilities regulated in Washington be amended to include Oregon-regulated utilities.

These two changes require a public hearing before they can be modified. At their meeting on Wednesday, Columbia County commissioners tentatively approved June 26 for a hearing, but Lyonnais said it was unlikely the county would have everything ready by then.

The final requested change is a minor modification regarding the blade height of the proposed turbines, which can be made by the county planning director.

Because the project is being transferred from one utility to another and has already been approved by the county, there is no appeals period.

All turbines for the project will be sited in Columbia County, but the transmission lines will spill over into neighboring Garfield County.

Garfield County Engineer Grant Morgan said he doesn’t anticipate any issues with the project, because PGE has adopted the provisions of the county’s original agreement with Puget Sound Energy. The county will hold a public hearing prior to signing a franchise agreement with PGE, which gives the utility permission to operate over county roads.

Both Lyonnais and Morgan anticipated significant economic benefits to their respective counties as a result of the project. PGE said construction will create about 300 jobs in the area, and they anticipate 18 full-time positions once the project is completed.

Morgan cited tax revenue as an additional benefit, noting that Garfield County’s revenue from Puget’s Phase I project for last year was around $2 million.

“The numbers we have crunched so far are very beneficial to the county,” Lyonnais said.

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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