The Tuusso solar project in Kittitas County is being considered before the county leaders and the county planning department have completed their revised siting policies for solar energy.
A 250-acre solar energy project could give green energy a black eye and set a dangerous precedent in Washington state. Energy projects like the one proposed in Kittitas County are being rejected in Oregon and other states when they are irresponsibly sited on prime irrigated farmland. Washington state needs to maintain consistency with its own Growth Management Act if it doesn’t want to poison the well for renewable energy and undermine decades of meaningful land-use policy.
The irony is that Kittitas County can have solar energy production and preserve irrigated agriculture — making it unnecessary for the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Council to set a precedent by giving solar energy a priority on prime irrigated agricultural soils that are available only on 4 percent of the county’s total land base.
Why use contested farmland when there are tens of thousands of acres available where leases from energy production could also support funding for state schools?
Tuusso Energy Company applied for a fast-track permit process for five different sites. The state’s expedited process allows permitting energy facilities independent of local sentiment or county regulations that protect farmland as required under the Growth Management Act.
On a previous wind energy project, the Energy Facilities Siting Council overruled Kittitas County policies that limited where the project could be built. Now the Tuusso solar project is being considered before the county leaders and the county planning department have completed their revised siting policies for solar energy.
The county commission passed a moratorium on new projects in order to improve existing regulations and determine which locations for energy generation were compatible with rural character and the conservation of prime farmland.
More than 18,000 acres of nonirrigated land have been identified in the county that specifically meet solar industry siting criteria for slope and grid access. Dryland state School Trust Lands currently generating little income are widely available that would directly benefit state school funding without threatening the long-term viability of the local agriculture economy. Beyond Kittitas County there are more than 14 million acres of shrub-steppe land in Eastern Washington and Oregon, much of it without water rights or agricultural potential.
Kittitas County previously absorbed the negative impacts of the vast majority of the state’s renewable energy projects permitted by the Energy Facilities Siting Council with little benefit to the local community. What kind of environmental justice is this to ask a small rural county with limited resources to absorb the impacts of these energy projects on it’s critical economic base of agriculture?
Agriculture contributes more than $68 million to the county’s economy and is rapidly expanding with its national importance in Honey Crisp apple production. Over the last 100 years, more than $1 billion in public and private investments was made to the regional irrigation system. Part of this state system irrigates the 59,000 acres of prime agriculture land in Kittitas County.
The county’s planning department has 18 solar projects waiting for the staff to finish mapping and refining its solar regulations. If Tuusso projects are approved this month, the precedent will be set not only for the Kittitas Valley but for other prime agricultural-resource lands across the state.
What is sad about the irresponsible proposals of a handful of solar companies is that there is no reason that Kittitas County and other jurisdictions can’t be host to both agriculture and solar-energy projects.
Perhaps the governor will overrule the Energy Facilities Siting Council decision when he realizes that using farmland for solar farms gives green energy a black eye.