Washington’s farmland and natural habitat are not immune to climate change. Extreme weather, drought, wildfire and flooding impact our landscape and natural resources. Solar energy is essential to mitigating the impacts of climate change, but it’s critically important to minimize the impact on our landscape.
Solar has a significant footprint, requiring vast amounts of land to produce electricity. The impacts have not been fully considered in the planning of our open spaces. Without careful planning and prioritization, our state’s climate targets are in conflict with long-standing goals to protect our natural and working lands.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study, 90% of solar development will occur on rural lands. In Washington, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that more than 54,000 acres are currently being pursued for solar. The influx of projects has slowed the permitting process as state agencies struggle to provide oversight under the State Environmental Protection Act.
One facility is already under construction in Kittitas County. The Columbia Solar project drew sharp criticism, with some concerned about aesthetics and others the loss of prime farmland. Land zoned for long-term agriculture was permitted for solar development under the assumption that the land could return to farming after the 40-year life of the facility. The state Department of Commerce noted in its review that a “persistent and growing” demand for solar energy would effectively lead to the loss of this valuable farmland. State law should prevent the conversion of designated agricultural lands.
On Badger Mountain overlooking Wenatchee, another project would displace more than 5,000 acres of natural habitat and rangeland. The shrub-steppe landscape in Douglas County serves as one of the last remaining habitats of the Greater Sage-Grouse in Washington. The United States Geological Service reported that the population of this threatened bird has declined by 80% since 1965. While sage-grouse and rotational grazing can find a balance on the shrub-steppe, solar panels would displace both.
Gov. Jay Inslee has seen the need for change. One of his climate proposals for the 2022 legislative session seeks to modernize the process for siting energy facilities, which is sorely needed. Permitting processes are contentious, confusing and underfunded. The state needs a simple and inclusive system that can deploy renewable energy and protect our irreplaceable natural resources.
Also included in the governor’s climate plan is more funding for staff to support permitting. This will address the backlog of projects, ensuring environmental oversight as we work toward our clean-energy goals. Broader issues surrounding the siting of energy facilities are being explored through ongoing stakeholder engagement groups. These processes have strong environmental representation, but not so much for agriculture. The needs of farmland should be more intentionally included as this work moves forward.
Recognizing the need for collaboration, the American Farmland Trust and Audubon Washington have partnered on these issues. Our goal is to find win-win solutions on solar energy siting. Our strategies are to deploy more solar in the built environment, identify low-conflict lands for solar, and advance the dual use of agriculture and solar.
First and foremost, we should prioritize solar in places that are already developed. Projects that have zero impact to habitat and farmland should be the priority, especially in places where energy is most needed.
The governor has proposed $100 million in investments toward solar energy. Some of this funding should go toward a low-income solar incentive program, much like a bill passed in 2020 that was vetoed due to the pandemic. This time the bill, introduced by Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, as HB 1814, would specifically incentivize projects on preferred sites that do not displace critical habitat or productive farmland.
Knowing the built environment cannot provide all of our energy needs, the next strategy is to identify appropriate sites for rural lands. Each county has unique open spaces and opportunities. Local planning tools are needed to support decision-making. Klickitat County has a tool that could serve as a model. An overlay map in their land-use system directs where alternative energy should go, as determined by county planning.
For this to be successful, we need a clear-eyed assessment of potential conflicts in the landscape. This summer, Washington State University will convene stakeholders to explore the conflicts in the Columbia Basin. This work will be modeled on the San Joaquin Valley Least-Conflict Lands Project in California, a stakeholder-led process that included the solar industry, farmers, ranchers and environmental advocates.
Using data provided by the stakeholders, these groups identified 470,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley for potential solar development. They also built relationships that will serve them well as they navigate difficult decisions around resource management. The Columbia Basin will benefit greatly from a least-conflict project such as this, especially if the interests of tribes are included early in the process.
Even with these efforts, some of our agricultural lands will need to learn to share. The governor’s budget includes funding for agrivoltaic research, more commonly known as dual-use solar. Early research for dual-use has shown the potential to conserve water, extend growing seasons, protect from extreme temperatures and create shade for livestock.
On a farm that incorporates solar energy, panels are mounted higher off the ground and farther apart to make room for crops or livestock. They are designed to track the sun throughout the day, which provides both light and shade to the soil below. The understory creates a microclimate, which could help the soil retain moisture, give plants and livestock a break from the hot sun and cool solar panels for greater efficiency. Agriculture and solar together could have mutual benefits in the face of heat and drought.
Agrivoltaic research exploring best practices for our region should be funded. This work will advance partnerships between farmers and the solar industry to find out what works in Washington. Studies have been underway at the University of Oregon, among several other places across the country, which can serve as a foundation for this research.
In 2023, the state should go a step further to fund pilot projects to demonstrate the viability of dual-use solar. Last year, New Jersey created a dual-use pilot program that will provide financial incentives to advance innovative projects. The bill also included protections for prime farmland and critical habitat.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels means major changes to the way we use land in both rural and urban communities. State leaders are paying attention and actively seeking solutions. We must continue moving forward with win-win solutions that are protective of habitat and farmland while efficient at advancing renewable energy.