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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    The Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect...
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • NORTH TUCSON FOOTHILLS
    11.63 acres of lush desert foothills on Tucson's near north side, secluded, secure, no HOA. 10 minute walk to Waldorf and Montessori schools, regional bike...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • MS ACCESS DATABASE PROGRAMER
    Looking for an access programmer. Contract position. Send resume with references and rates to: [email protected] www.prospace.biz
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.