Comment: Washington can be a shining example for solar energy

A collaborative effort is helping to site projects with input from farmers and conservationists.

By Deborah Jensen and Addie Candib / For The Herald

Thanks to Washington state’s landmark Clean Energy Transformation Act, the next decade is expected to be a boon for clean electricity and transmission projects across the state.

Even among staunch supporters of clean energy, however, there are reasonable concerns about solar panels stretched as far as the eye can see, covering the places where farmers once farmed and wildlife once roamed.

Here in Washington, clean-energy siting is mostly focused on the sunny interior of the state, where it’s already creating tough trade-offs, leading to bitter conflict in local communities. In places like Kittitas and Klickitat counties, farmers and conservationists are butting heads with developers and county commissioners over whether — and where — to site solar energy installations.

This spring, state legislators in Olympia will have the opportunity to help resolve such conflicts. A proposed “Least Conflict Solar Siting” pilot project in the Columbia Basin would bring stakeholders together to openly state their preferences and acknowledge areas of agreement and disagreement, in order to map out areas where conflict is minimal. The resulting maps would help guide future clean energy proposals to areas that will generate stronger local community support for efficient, responsible and community-informed solar projects.

This collaborative approach is time-tested and proven. In 2016, dozens of stakeholders in California’s San Joaquin Valley, representing solar developers, farmers, ranchers, tribes and conservationists worked together to identify more than 470,000 acres of land where solar could be sited without compromising any one group’s needs or interests.

The Clean Energy Transformation Act set targets for our pursuit of 100 percent clean electricity, but at our current rate of emissions reductions, we are not on track to meet those goals. Reaching our goals will require more ambitious actions.

We’ll need to site a lot more renewable energy generation, as well as large-scale storage projects. Doing so will expand the opportunity zone for clean energy projects far beyond the Columbia Basin, where wind and solar development has been focused to date, which means potential for clean energy industry growth elsewhere in Washington state. As we do so, important habitat lands and agricultural areas will face increasing pressure from development. Getting solar siting right in the Columbia Basin will be key to making this process work for other geographies and other project types. Investing in this pilot project now will prepare us to responsibly accommodate more renewable energy development in the future as it affects communities across the state.

In Washington state, we have an opportunity to showcase what coming together and working together across differences can achieve. T

This feels all too infrequent in the United States these days, so let’s serve as a model for the rejuvenation of that special and essential trait of a strong democratic society. As President Biden recently implored the nation, both those who voted for him and those who didn’t, “We can see each other not as adversaries but as neighbors. We can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail.”

So let’s do that here. Let’s do that now.

Deborah Jensen, who holds a doctorate in energy and resources, is the executive director of Audubon Washington, a field office of the National Audubon Society. She leads a team working to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity. Addie Candib is the Pacific Northwest regional director for American Farmland Trust, where she leads the organization’s efforts to protect farmland in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

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