Wind and solar energy resources have proven easy to love — from afar. Many city, county and state government agencies have flocked to embrace renewable electrical power with little to no carbon emissions. But residents in the wide-open spaces where wind and solar farms are supplanting food crops complain of new landscape blight.
Both sides need to hear each other out.
The hard reality of the climate crisis requires building cleaner electricity sources to cut carbon emissions. That means wind farms offshore and on ridgelines, and solar farms taking over acreage from scrub brush or cropland.
But residents who love rural Washington’s bright open spaces deserve better than a “get used to it” scolding as their landscape changes. The transitions to channel sunshine and canyon winds into the power grid must be managed with sensitivity. The shift to cleaner energy is too essential to lose progress to a deepening cultural clash.
As the Times’ Hal Bernton reported, wind and solar development east of the Cascades pits neighbors against each other in several communities as power suppliers dangle offers to lease acreage. In March, Klickitat County commissioners passed a moratorium on solar developments west of Goldendale, and Benton County commissioners unanimously opposed a large wind turbine project for the Horse Heaven Hills.
Washington state officials need to cultivate better buy-in for the green energy future Gov. Jay Inslee touts.
The Legislature recently approved a promising pilot that, if successful, could lead to expanding clean electricity sources. The Washington State University energy program is conducting a state-funded $500,000 study to map where solar development in Washington’s Columbia Basin would incite the least conflict.
The approach is a California import, where it showed it can be successful. A 2015 project evaluated the 9.5 million-acre San Joaquin Valley for places where solar farms might be accepted by talking to landowners and other people with local interests. The effort identified 5% of the valley — 470,000 acres, a little more land than all of Thurston County — as sites where solar development was least likely to provoke conflict.
The Washington State energy project is expected to produce a similar guide to low-controversy sites for solar development by mid-2023. WSU energy director Todd Currier said the project could be replicated in “one or two more” sections of the state if successful.
“We’ll do the Northwest thing, get some people around the table and talk,” he said in an interview, “and maybe have some positive outcomes.”
Inslee and the Legislature should watch this project closely and encourage participation. Solar developers need a road map of where they might build on friendly terms. Communities should have influence on where energy projects could be tolerable. And over time, building the machinery to harness solar and wind energy where people find it less jarring will broaden its acceptance.
State law gives Inslee the power to override local government decisions on solar projects, as Klickitat County Commissioner Dan Christopher lamented.
“Even if we don’t want it, you can force it into our backyard,” he said.
But exercising that power risks worsening the already existent blowback against solar. A turn away from solar development would hurt efforts to reduce carbon emissions and income possibilities for owners of low-profit crop acreages. The political and environmental solution is to help clean energy find where it can fit in best. This transition means too much to be botched.