Balancing Priorities: Addressing Conflicts with Solar Energy in Washington State - American Farmland Trust

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Balancing Priorities: Addressing Conflicts with Solar Energy in Washington State

U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Clayton Wear, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prolonged drought, extreme temperatures, and wildfire smoke are some of the impacts of climate change experienced by farmers and ranchers, and new policies are looking at solar energy in Washington State as part of the solution. The future of agriculture depends on a steep reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. But it also depends on protecting land that is highly productive for agriculture, which is now threatened by solar development. Renewable energy is a critical part of our future, but we must be strategic in its deployment.

In 2019, Washington State set targets for reducing emissions through the Clean Energy Transformation Act. By 2045, all electricity will need to be renewable or non-emitting. Along with federal subsidies to support solar energy, this goal has led energy developers to areas with high solar potential, primarily in eastern Washington.

Where these projects are sited has been a source of controversy, with a largely urban demand for solar energy competing with agriculture, habitat, and other important land-based resources in rural communities. Several efforts are underway to address these conflicts.

Least-Conflict Solar Siting in Washington State

Thankfully, a new tool is now available to support better planning. The Washington State University (WSU) Energy Program has completed the Least-Conflict Solar Siting project for the Columbia Plateau. American Farmland Trust (AFT) participated in this landscaped-based, multi-stakeholder process to identify places that are both suitable for solar energy and low conflict for farmland, rangeland, and the environment. Mapping groups convened to find the most current data, evaluate the qualities of the land, and share on-the-ground knowledge and experience.

Map from the Least-Conflict Solar Siting tool showing the relative value of farmland in the Columbia Plateau. Image credit: Washington State University Energy Program.

The Least-Conflict mapping tool helps users to better understand and visualize how these interests intersect on the Columbia Plateau. About 212,000 acres of land have been identified as having both high suitability for solar and low conflict, which is an excellent start for exploring new solar projects. The tool can be adjusted for varying levels of conflict and updated as new data becomes available.

Who will find this tool to be useful? The Washington Department of Ecology will be using it to implement new legislation for siting clean energy. HB 1216 directs Ecology to consider this tool to identify areas for utility-scale solar and develop environmental impact statements. This will help streamline the permitting process and incentivize solar developers to seek out these areas for new projects.

Land trusts could use the tool to target resources for easements and other forms of land protection. It could also be useful to county governments, which are required to designate and conserve critical areas and natural resource lands, including agricultural land.

The Columbia Plateau counties are due for an update to their land use planning in 2026 or 2027, which will be a key moment to plan for a future that protects land while finding areas to support solar energy.

This tool is also useful to those in the solar industry. They can seek development opportunities for solar energy in Washington State in areas where there is less likely to be opposition due to competing interests. To increase the acreage of areas with high solar suitability, solar developers should seek new federal and state funding to extend energy infrastructure to low conflict areas.

It’s important to note that not all interests are included in this mapping tool.

Tribal representatives were engaged in the Least-Conflict Solar Siting project, but their areas of interest, including places where cultural resources and first foods are located, are not incorporated into the mapping tool because this information is sensitive and confidential. As sovereign nations, Tribes need to be directly engaged at the start of any process to site a solar energy project to ensure that their rights and resources are protected.

Solar Leasing: A Guide for Agricultural Landowners

Even with the Least-Conflict mapping tool, farmland will still be attractive sites for solar developers. Those who own valuable agricultural land will continue to receive offers to lease their land. While dedicated to the mission of protecting farmland, we see an opportunity to support responsible deployment of solar energy in Washington State. In response, AFT created Smart SolarSM principles and the Solar Leasing Guidebook, to lead our engagement on this issue and support landowners in their decision-making.  and support landowners in their decision-making.

AFT’s first principle is to prioritize solar in the built environment and on land not well suited for farming. Recognizing that this will not always be the case, our second principle is to safeguard the ability of land to be used for agriculture in the future, which can be done through careful agreements made in the lease.

Solar Leasing guide for agricultural landowners in the Pacific Northwest. Image credit: American Farmland Trust

To mitigate farmland loss and provide landowners with the resources they need to make the best decisions for their land, AFT’s PNW team created Solar Leasing: A Guide for Agricultural Landowners in the Pacific Northwest. This comprehensive guide, created in partnership with Farm Commons and Oregon State University’s Nexus of Energy, Water, and Agriculture (NEWAg) Lab, walks landowners through the leasing process from the initial conversation to the point of decision making. Chapters focus on understanding the solar leasing process, exploring agrivoltaics, weighing financial opportunities and risks, recognizing impacts to the land, respecting relationships, and identifying non-negotiables.

While this guide was originally created for agricultural landowners, a secondary and valuable audience has been conservation professionals who work with landowners. It is an important tool for professionals in understanding the complexity of leases and the decisions that landowners need to make in weighing their choices.


Another Smart SolarSM principle is to advance agrivoltaics, which is the dual use of solar energy and agriculture. This opportunity was not incorporated in the Least-Conflict mapping tool, but WSU was tasked with developing a report on the current research for dual-use solar. Ultimately, until there are demonstration projects that prove that agrivoltaics will work for both farmers and energy utilities at scale, it remains an uncertain prospect in the Pacific Northwest.

NEWAg associate professor Chad Higgins offers a tour of the agrivoltaic research facility in Aurora, Oregon. Photo Credit: American Farmland Trust

Research is already underway in Oregon, with the NEWAg team conducting agrivoltaics field trials at their field station in Aurora, southwest of Portland. They are also supporting the development of a for-profit developer-led agrivoltaic array in Grant County.

While we have yet to see agrivoltaics at utility-scale, which can require hundreds of acres, we are on the cusp of seeing some of these small-scale theories played out on the larger fields. This will allow us to better understand the compatibility of solar power and food production.

And more research is on the way for solar energy in Washington State. As part of the 2023-2025 state budget, the Department of Commerce received $10.7 million to develop a pilot program to provide grants and technical assistance for planning, predevelopment, and installation of commercial, dual-use solar power demonstration projects. This is a key moment to define the future of agrivoltaics in Washington, with opportunities to explore other dual-use relationships, such as solar over irrigation canals.

Solar energy is rapidly evolving across the country as we work to slow climate change. Washington has taken important steps for better land use planning to support a future that includes agriculture, the environment, and renewable energy, while spurring innovation to find ways to better share the land.  Planning tools and agrivoltaics are two immediate ways to mitigate farmland loss while addressing the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Building off progress in states like Washington, AFT is also working with federal agencies and members of Congress to advance Smart Solar policy in the next Farm Bill.  Please check out our Farm Bill recommendations for more information.

About the Author
Dani Madrone

Pacific Northwest Senior Policy and Planning Manager

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