Solar salvation?

Timber companies and unemployed workers look to renewable energy for a boost.

  • An artist's conception of the proposed Teanaway Solar Reserve.

    Image courtesy Teanaway Solar Reserve
 

Fifteen years ago, Washington's Kittitas County hosted a flourishing timber industry. Several hundred locals logged, worked in sawmills or trucked lumber all over the state.

These days, however, only a handful of people still work in forestry. More than a dozen mills have closed in Washington over the last 10 years. Timberland became more valuable than the trees themselves, and timber companies turned to real estate development to keep afloat. Now, however, with the real estate economy in the tank as well, one local logging company is getting into a different game altogether.

On July 9, 2009, private developers announced that Kittitas County would be home to the largest solar power plant ever proposed in the Northwest. The Teanaway Solar Reserve, with its 400,000 photovoltaic panels, would produce 75 megawatts -- enough to power about 45,000 homes. American Forest Land Co. is leasing the project 400 acres of clear-cut land four miles outside of the mountain town of Cle Elum. Teanaway also plans to build a solar manufacturing plant in Cle Elum itself.

American Forest Land Co., which owns 43,000 acres in central Washington, hasn't sold any logs since 2006, says Jeff Jones, who manages the 400 acres. The deal would bring in some much-needed income, making American Forest one of a handful of timber companies that have begun to explore renewable energy as an alternative source of income.

Increased transportation costs and a slump in the housing market have forced timber companies to diversify. Some have begun manufacturing products such as cellulose compounds used in toothpaste and ice cream. Companies like Rayonier and Plum Creek Timber Co., one of the largest non-government landowners in the United States, became real estate investment trusts, parceling off land to high-paying developers. In 1996, for example, Plum Creek sold 7,412 acres in Kittitas County to investors for the development of Suncadia, a luxury resort that shifted the region further from its timber and mining roots to an economy based on tourism and second homes. But with that economy faltering, too, alternative energy has taken on a new sheen, especially given tax incentives and Washington's requirement that 15 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

Since 2001, 16 wind projects -- totaling nearly 1,600 megawatts -- have sprung up in the state, which now ranks fifth in the nation for wind capacity. On Earth Day this year, Gov. Chris Gregoire authorized two pilot projects in eastern and western Washington that would experiment with converting wood waste into energy. And in the lower Kittitas Valley, Puget Sound Energy operates a small-scale solar project -- 500 kilowatts from 3,000 panels -- which has demonstrated that solar can work just fine even in the relatively cloudy Northwest. 

Timber companies have taken notice, Jones says. In Skamania County, for instance, SDS Lumber Co. and Broughton Lumber recently inked a deal with the Whistling Ridge Energy Project to build approximately 50 wind turbines on 1,152 acres of commercial forestland. The project could bring 75 megawatts to the Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore., area.

Such efforts could give a boost to the Northwest's small towns. In economically depressed Kittitas County (where the unemployment rate hovers at 8.1 percent), Teanaway's project will mean a couple hundred temporary construction jobs and around 35 permanent jobs at the power plant, and potentially hundreds more long-term jobs at the manufacturing plant.

And using private land that is already clear-cut may help the company avoid the controversy often faced by solar projects proposed for undeveloped public land. "One of the beauties of the project is finding another natural resource use for the land that brings revenue to the community," says Matt Steuerwalt, a consultant for Teanaway Solar. "This isn't pristine land by any means."

If all the necessary permits are obtained, construction could begin in spring 2010. The solar company is in talks with Puget Sound Energy and Bonneville Power to obtain transmission and power-purchase agreements and recently completed an economic impact study for the county.

Still, some locals remain suspicious, put off by the aura of secrecy around the project. Howard Trott, the principal investor and managing director of the project, announced it to Cle Elum's city officials just 24 hours before the news was made public. And Trott, a Washington native, won't divulge who the rest of the investors are, although he says that the project is fully funded. 

Nick Henderson, president of the Roslyn Historical Museum, spends his days surrounded by remnants of one of the county's older boom-and-bust industries -- coal mining. "We need jobs around here, and I hope that they really do hire local people," he says. But this project "sounds like a big secret, and that's not a good way to come into Kittitas County."

Separating hype from the truth will be important, concedes Cle Elum city planner Matt Morton. "We're excited as a city. The green economy is in, that's what Obama was all about, but we're all in uncharted waters."