ELLENSBURG – After decades of growing alfalfa, Timothy hay and other crops, Jeff and Jackie Brunson want to lease part of their farm to a Seattle-based solar-power developer.
Not a popular move. Neighbors and other county residents don’t want the green of summer fields transformed into a black expanse of photovoltaic panels.
“They aren’t happy. But it is a business decision we have made, and we don’t regret it one iota,” Jackie Brunson said. “We owe nobody a view. It’s our farm, and it’s a great way to diversify.”
As proposed by Seattle-based Tuusso Energy, the photovoltaic panels would spread across more than 80 of the Brunsons’ 1,000 acres, and another 120 acres owned by three other Ellensburg-area landowners. If approved, this would be one of the first solar farms to come on line in Washington – and for some, an unwelcome precedent for turning crop land over to solar-energy production.
In this case, the solar panels would sit on less than a half percent of Kittitas County’s 180,000 farm acres. Still, opponents worry that a project here, combined with a rising demand for clean energy such as solar, will swallow up whole swaths of agricultural land that produce the crops and livestock that underpin the county economy.
“These projects should not be on ag land. There are plenty of other places in the county where they can go,” said Richard Carkner, Brunson’s neighbor and a founder of Save Our Farms, a nonprofit formed to oppose the development.
Such concerns prompted county commissioners to reject an earlier solar project proposed for farmland and approve a moratorium for permits for all new ones.
Developers say predictions of solar sprawl are overblown, and that county delays put the project at risk.
They have asked the state to override the county moratorium, and on April 17 they achieved initial success when the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council approved an expedited review of the Tuusso project. Council members now have two months to make a recommendation to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has the final say.
“We are excited about the decision,” said Jason Evans, co-founder of Tuusso Energy. “If everything goes well, we could be breaking ground by the end of the year.”
County commissioners had hoped the state council would stay out of the permitting.
“The process really takes away the voice of the local government and the local citizens and local control of what the land is going to look like,” said Laura Osiadacz, a county commissioner. “It is a very disappointing decision for the residents of Kittitas County.”
A broader clash
The Kittitas County clash is part of a broader battle over solar siting, one that has escalated in recent years as developers fan out across the country in search of prime locations. Their projects range from a few dozen acres to mega-solar farms like Topaz, which spreads over 6,400 acres in San Luis Obispo County in California.
The industry’s dramatic expansion has been buoyed by favorable government policies and incentives and growing consumer demand for cleaner sources of electricity.
Developers also have benefited from huge declines in the prices of photovoltaic panels, which use silicon, an element found in sand, to convert sunlight into electricity. From 2010 through 2017, the average project costs plummeted by about 80 percent, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In 2017, these solar projects generated about 2 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Solar’s share of the power market is expected to grow.
Even with the 30 percent tariff on imported solar panels announced this year by President Donald Trump, solar projects can be built for far less money than in years past.
“We have seen panels get more efficient, and a lot more inexpensive,” said Evans, who co-founded Tuusso Energy back in 2008, and through the past decade has helped to bring on five solar projects in four states.
But some developers have faced resistance for projects that typically involve tens or hundreds of thousands of photovoltaic panels.
In Oregon, for example, the state land-use board last year overturned Jackson County’s approval of an 80-acre project on farmland.
In North Carolina’s Currituck County, where two projects have been placed on 2,260 acres of farm land, neighbors complained about noise and dust during construction and poor maintenance that allowed weeds to sprout among the solar panels. These issues, along with concerns about farmland loss, helped persuade county commissioners in February 2017 to ban new solar developments, according to Laurie LoCicero, the county planning director.
Washington lags in solar boom
In Washington, solar has largely been confined to rooftop installations on homes and businesses, and a small demonstration project at a Puget Sound Energy (PSE) site in Kittitas County.
Most renewable-energy development during the past two decades has focused on wind power. These projects, at times, also have faced pushback in Kittitas County, which is just over the Cascade divide from the Puget Sound region.
Then-Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2007 approved the Horizon Wind project that had been turned down by county commissioners. In a legal challenges, plaintiffs argued that the turbines, visible for miles, would spoil a scenic view shed and violate local ordinances, but the state Supreme Court allowed the project to go forward.
In Washington, wind power development has slowed, with many of the prime ridge-top and other sites already claimed.
Unless PSE and other utilities venture farther afield to prime wind states like Montana, the future here is likely to include a lot more solar power. In a recent planning document, PSE tagged Eastern Washington solar as the cheapest renewable option, and forecast buying up to 266 megawatts of power from solar producers by 2023.
Tuusso’s project – known as Columbia Solar – would meet only a small part of that demand. The sites selected – and leased for 30 years – would collectively produce 25 megawatts of power.
The project would provide enough electricity for about 1,000 homes, according to Evans. The panels would sit about 8 feet high, and trees and shrubs would be planted to help screen them from view.
The project is estimated to cost $40 million to $50 million, and is made possible by a 1978 federal law — the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act — that requires PSE to buy the electricity at a price equal to or less than the cost from a traditional power plant.
In Kittitas County, Tuusso Energy has found some support, including from the Chamber of Commerce board, which voted unanimously to endorse the project.
“The feeling was that we do have to transition away from carbon fuels at some point, and solar is a good way to do it,” said Jim Armstrong, the chamber’s executive director.
County critics say they are not against solar energy, but that farmland – under the state’s Growth Management Act – is supposed to be protected.
Carkner, a retired agricultural economist, says each planted acre helps support the broader community as farmers purchase seed, fertilizer, tractors and other merchandise from local merchants, and spend their earnings in town.
So Carkner wants projects placed in more remote, undeveloped parts of the county, some of which, he said, have the three-phase electrical lines needed to handle the power produced by photovoltaic panels.
Tuusso did initially look at such land but could find no suitable sites with the three-phase transmission network in place, according to Evans. It would be possible for a large solar project to build a three-transmission network in these out-of-the-way locations. But for a smaller project, such as Columbia Solar, Evans says such development would add millions of dollars in costs and scuttle profitability.
The economics look a lot better in the irrigated agricultural zone, where an extensive three-phase transmission system already is in place, according to Evans.
But even in this farm belt, the transmission system is limited, and would largely be tapped out once photovoltaic panels were placed on some 400 acres of farmland, according to Evans. Thus, he said concerns that county farmland would be overrun by solar photovoltaic panels are unjustified.
If Columbia Solar gets a green light from Inslee, opponents still may opt to pursue a legal challenge.
But if all goes according to plan, the alfalfa and seed oats now growing in two of the Brunsons’ fields be replaced next year by some 35,000 photovoltaic panels.
Jeff Brunson figures that, even on these lands, he still will be farming.
“The sun raises my crops right now, and the sun is going to raise them in the future,” Brunson said.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.