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Rural residents ask about tax rates, land use as state studies renewable energy projects

Wind turbines along a rural road. Washington will have to develop renewable energy projects to meet its carbon-free goals. A lot of that development will likely happen in rural areas.
Roy Harryman
Flickr Creative Commons
Wind turbines along a rural road. Washington will have to develop renewable energy projects to meet its carbon-free goals. A lot of that development will likely happen in rural areas.

Washington officials want to know what rural residents think about renewable energy development. At an online public meeting Wednesday, people from across the state raised questions about tax rates, farm and forest land use, and views they said could be obstructed by wind and solar farms.

In 2023,Governor Jay Inslee signed a law that could make it easier and faster to build renewable energy projects. The law also requires the state to study how these projects affect rural residents and local economics.

“This study is really focused on rural communities,” said Susan Hayman with Ross Strategic, a consulting firm hired to conduct the study. “We have been very deliberately going to rural communities and hearing from those residents. The state is very interested in the experience that folks in rural communities are having around clean energy development.”

People from Grays Harbor to Pullman commented during the online public meeting. Most seemed skeptical of renewable energy development. For example, Tom Thompson, who lives in the Palouse region, said farmland won’t be the same after wind turbines or solar arrays are installed.

“A lot of these rural people, we’re not stupid, we look at science. We know how things work,” he said. “But we feel like we’re being totally ignored by Olympia. And there’s almost a religious agenda going on (around renewable energy development).”

Several commenters said they felt local tax bases might take a hit.

However, the consultants said case studies of 10 planned and built wind projects didn’t run into those problems.

“What we’ve seen from the data and the numbers, generally speaking, is that personal property and sales tax (from projects) is a boost (to local economies). It does increase the local tax revenues,” said Kieran Bunting, with Industrial Economics, a consulting group hired by the state.

Steve Drew, Thurston County’s assessor, said a new state law concerning renewable energy projects could diminish tax benefits for local taxpayers. The law would exempt renewable energy projects from paying state property taxes, starting in 2025.

Drew noted that in Klickitat, Kittitas and Benton counties, current and planned renewable energy projects represent over half of the tax base.

“If they’re left in – business/personal property tax – every taxpayer will see their bill diminish by more than half,” Drew said. “But when you pull (renewable energy projects) out of property tax, then all of the property owners all around these projects and all of the communities see no benefit whatsoever from more than doubling the tax base in their taxing districts.”

Bunting said the law is too new for the consultants to have studied, but he said they plan to look into it.

Amanda McKinney, Yakima County Commissioner for District 1, said not only are these projects a shift in tax burdens, they’re also a shift in culture of caring about local land use, noting that the wind and solar projects are much larger than other technology, like small modular nuclear reactors or already-built hydropower.

“We’re on a mission to ruin the environment to protect the environment,” McKinney said.

In addition, she said, wind and solar create a lot of waste in their manufacturing and disposal.

Other commenters asked if the state could look at woody biomass on the westside of the state or microgrids that could link distributed energy in communities and help with energy reliability and resilience.

Consultants also met with people in Dayton, Zillah and Mount Vernon, and they said they plan to continue meeting with local officials and advocacy groups as they gather information. They will accept public comments through September. The final report to the state Department of Commerce is due Oct. 1.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

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