County commissioners eye land for solar panel installation

Public land on Whidbey Island might be the site of a large solar project someday.

Public land on Whidbey Island might be the site of a large solar project someday, but only if obstacles can be overcome.

The project is in preparation of a request for proposals from Puget Sound Energy, expected in 2023. The request will be part of the company’s effort to fulfill state requirements to phase out coal by 2025, reach carbon-free electricity by 2030 and reach 100% renewable energy by 2045.

Public Works Director Connie Bowers, who is also the county engineer, gave a presentation on three potential Whidbey Island sites during a Dec. 14 Island County work session.

She explained that EDF Renewables, a company that specializes in renewable energy production, is actively engaged with jurisdictions across Northwest Washington to find public land for construction of solar panels.

The parcels used for solar panels should be between 30-75 acres and be located near a Puget Sound Energy-owned substation and distribution power lines. The land would be leased for 25 years with an option to extend the lease for another 5 to 15 years.

The parcel of highest interest to EDF Renewables is a 36-acre property at the intersection of Balda Road and Scenic Heights Road. It is currently being leased for raising crops, which could not continue if the solar panels were installed, but other agricultural uses such as grazing or pollinator crops could be possible.

But after that parcel was identified, it was determined that the deed states that the property can only be used for fish and wildlife habitat, open space or recreation, according to Bowers. Solar power installation does not fall into any of those categories.

Another potential Island County site is on Smuggler’s Cove Road near the intersection with Highway 525.

“That’s a different beast as it has this logging that has to occur,” Bowers said.

The third parcel on West Beach Road, north of Hastie Lake Road, is also forested.

County Commissioner Jill Johnson spoke on behalf of Commissioner Melanie Bacon, who was not present at the work session. She said she knew Bacon would not be comfortable cutting trees down.

“If we’ve learned anything, Melanie doesn’t want to cut down the trees,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Janet St. Clair asked if there is any legal way the deed restriction on the Scenic Heights property can be revised. Bowers responded that it could be looked into. St. Clair also suggested that the panels could possibly be installed on private property.

Johnson said she is in support of the project, and it is only a matter of finding the right location.

“I’m excited that someone’s looking at trying to do something like this in our county,” she said.