Sunny prospects to coexist with solar energy

Washington’s farmlands and natural habitat are not immune to climate change. Extreme weather conditions, drought, forest fires and floods impact our landscape and natural resources. Solar energy is essential for mitigating the impacts of climate change, but it is critically important for minimizing the impact on our landscape.

Solar energy has a large footprint, requiring large tracts of land to generate electricity. The impacts have not been fully considered in the planning of our open spaces. Without careful planning and prioritization, our state’s climate goals conflict with longstanding goals to protect our natural and working lands.

According to the US Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study, 90% of solar development will occur on rural land. In Washington, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that more than 54,000 acres are currently being sought for solar power. The influx of projects has slowed the permitting process as state agencies struggle to provide oversight under the state’s environmental protection law.

A facility is already under construction in Kittitas County. The Columbia Solar project has drawn heavy criticism, with some worrying about aesthetics and others about the loss of prime farmland. Land zoned for long-term agriculture was cleared for solar development on the assumption that the land could return to agriculture after the 40-year lifespan of the facility. The state Department of Commerce noted in its review that a “persistent and growing” demand for solar energy would effectively result in the loss of this valuable farmland. State law should prevent the conversion of designated farmland.

On Badger Mountain overlooking Wenatchee, another project would displace more than 5,000 acres of natural habitat and range. The Douglas County shrub-steppe landscape is one of the last remaining habitats of the greater sage-grouse in Washington. The U.S. Geological Survey reported that the population of this endangered bird has declined 80 percent since 1965. While sage-grouse and rotational grazing may find a balance in the shrub-steppe, solar panels would displace both .

Governor Jay Inslee saw the need for change. One of its climate proposals for the 2022 legislature aims to modernize the process of setting up energy installations, which is sorely lacking. Permissions 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.

The governor’s climate plan also includes more funding for staff to support permitting. This will resolve the backlog of projects, providing environmental oversight as we work towards our clean energy goals. Broader issues surrounding the location of energy facilities are explored through ongoing stakeholder engagement groups. These processes have a strong environmental representation, but not so much for agriculture. Farmland needs should be included more intentionally as this work progresses.

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 for the implementation of solar energy. Our strategies include deploying more solar power in the built environment, identifying low-conflict land for solar power, and advancing the dual use of agriculture and solar power.

First, we need to prioritize solar in places that are already developed. Projects that have no impact on habitat and agricultural land should be prioritized, especially in places where energy is most needed.

The governor has proposed $100 million in solar energy investments. Some of that funding is expected to go to a solar incentive program for low-income people, 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 encourage projects on preferred sites that don’t displace critical habitat or productive farmland.

Knowing that the built environment cannot meet all of our energy needs, the next strategy is to identify suitable sites for rural land. 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. A map overlaid in their land use system shows where alternative energy should go, as determined by county planning.

For this to succeed, we need a lucid assessment of potential conflicts in the landscape. This summer, Washington State University will bring together stakeholders to explore conflict in the Columbia Basin. This work will be modeled after California’s San Joaquin Valley Least Conflict Lands Project, a stakeholder-led process that included the solar industry, farmers, ranchers and conservationists.

Using data provided by stakeholders, these groups identified 470,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley for potential solar development. They have also established relationships that will serve them well when making difficult resource management decisions. The Columbia Basin will benefit greatly from a less conflict project like this, especially if tribal interests are included early in the process.

Even with these efforts, some of our farmland will have to learn to share. The governor’s budget includes funding for agrivoltaic research, more commonly known as dual-purpose solar. Early research into dual-use showed the potential for conserving water, extending growing seasons, protecting against temperature extremes, and providing shade for livestock.

In a farm that incorporates solar energy, the panels are mounted higher off the ground and further apart to make room for crops or livestock. They are designed to follow the sun throughout the day, which provides both light and shade to the ground below. The understory creates a microclimate, which could help soil retain moisture, give plants and livestock a break from the hot sun, and cool solar panels for greater efficiency. Agriculture and solar 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 are underway at the University of Oregon, among several other places across the country, that can serve as the basis for this research.

In 2023, the state should go further by funding 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.

Moving away from fossil fuels means major changes in how we use land in rural and urban communities. Heads of state are paying attention and actively seeking solutions. We must continue to move forward with win-win solutions that protect habitat and farmland while being effective in advancing renewable energy.

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