French company eyes Richland for solar farm as energy costs remain uncertain

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While a proposed Richland solar power project would be the biggest in the state, the economic future of this source of electricity in Washington is not yet written in stone.

This will be the first American venture for the French solar power company Neoen. As Neoen studies the potential installation of a 20-megawatt solar farm in northern Richland, several factors are in play.

Producing solar power has become cheaper, but still not as much as hydropower or natural gas — the figures on all three sources constantly fluctuate. And the American Southwest is still a more desirable solar power region than the Northwest. The sun’s rays hit solar panels at much better angles at the lower latitudes to create more electricity.

“The efficiency on a solar project in the Mojave Desert is going to be much higher,” said Steve Simmons, senior economist in the energy division of the Northwest Power & Conservation Council.

That is why Oregon and California are swamped with solar power projects, while Neoen is only the second utility-scale project in Washington

Neoen’s proposed project, scheduled for completion in 2019, is on a 300-acre piece of former federal Hanford land just northwest of the 300 Area. The federal Department of Energy transferred that land to the Tri-Cities Development Council. TRIDEC then transferred control to Energy Northwest with the understanding that at least 100 acres would be used for solar power. Neoen obtained an option on 150 acres earlier this year.

The discussions have been underway for three years. Energy Northwest, a power plant in north Richland, already has a 39-kilowatt demonstration solar panel project in the White Bluffs area, and it plans to build a four-megawatt solar farm next to Horn Rapids Road. In comparison, the Bonneville Dam near Portland produces 1,050 megawatts. The Columbia Generating Station reactor provides 1,190 megawatts. Near Walla Walla, 454 wind turbines create 104 megawatts.

“Twenty-megawatts isn’t that much. But for solar power, it’s pretty good,” said Mike Starret, an energy analyst with the Northwest Power & Conservation Council.

Founded in 2008, Neoen is an independent supplier of electricity from renewable energy (solar, wind and biomass) and is set to be the first French supplier to reach 1,000 megawatts of installed power.

Neoen operates in France, Australia, El Salvador, Mexico, Zambia, Mozambique, Jordan, Jamaica, Portugal and Ireland, producing more than 1.2 gigawatts in electricity.

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John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a longtime Pacific Northwest reporter. He is a jack-of-all-trades freelancer with expertise in a variety of topics, including the Hanford nuclear reservation, state government, the environment, science and crime.

View all posts by John Stang