By Carol Pierson Holding
Solar energy is such a great idea in concept. It's not surprising that when a New York City businessman planned the world’s largest solar array in Washington state, it gained popular support as well as federal backing. It seemed that the U.S. would finally lead the way in alternative energy by example. That’s why it hurt so much when it turned out the project was more about making money than producing viable, solar energy at scale.
This story is about how legislative wrangling stopped it from going forward.
For those who missed the original story: New York City timber baron John M. Rudy owns 46,000 acres of land at the base of the Cascade Mountains. Since Rudy’s timber has been made worthless by the closing of local lumber processing plants, his company, American Forestry, decided to develop the land, starting with the Teanaway Solar Reserve, cutting down 900 acres of trees to do so.
Even if you didn’t have to cut down all those trees, a quick look at a few solar maps makes it clear that Teanaway is not where you would choose to locate an economically viable solar farm. Plus Teanaway gets over twice the amount of rain of neighboring Ellensburg, where an earlier solar experiment was so disappointing that it won’t be expanding.
So how did TSR make the numbers work? The Federal Stimulus Bill covered 1/3 of construction costs and state subsidies in the form of credits to utilities for buying from renewable energy sources.
And still the numbers didn’t work. So TSR petitioned the Washington State legislature for double the original state subsidy, believing that no legislator in his or her right mind would vote against solar energy in this environmentally crazy place. An influential lobbying firm, Strategies 360, exerted even more pressure, touting environmental leadership for Washington State and jobs too. Soon nearly every state politician was a strong supporter. The State House voted 91 to 3 in favor of the bill.
The bill then went to the State Senate, whose members couldn’t say no to the “largest solar farm in the world”, especially after Governor Christine Gregoire announced her vision for Washington to be the national leader in the creation of green energy.
So the Senate, understanding the flaws in the project, added two amendments to essentially kill the bill. Playing TSR’s own trump card, the promise of more jobs, the Senate’s first amendment required that TSR manufacture its solar panels in Kittitas County, where Teanaway is located. The second amendment demanded that all TSR power go to Washington residents, depriving TSR of a far more attractive market: California. Why is California more attractive? Because in Washington State there is an over supply of energy.
That’s right, an over supply. The state’s abundant hydropower gives Washington over 90% of the energy it needs. Since hydropower is the cheapest form of renewable, the alternative energy market is tough to crack. On the other side of the equation, power demand in Washington has held steady despite population gains because residents feel strongly about energy conservation.
The culture in the Pacific Northwest tends to favor the environment -- even over power. What the East Coast robber barons did not take into account when planning their solar coup was the overwhelming natural beauty of Teanaway -- even where the forests have been logged. Perhaps members of the State Senate knew the area or have friends there who extolled its magnificence or could envision what it was like from topographical maps that show lakes and rivers and ridges. We may never know exactly what happened with the TRS project, only that, as with climate change, nature has lot of interesting ways to exert its influence.
Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.
Inset photo courtesy of International Rivers.