Conflicts Escalate Amid Surge in Washington Solar Farm Proposals


Susan Kane-Ronning lives in Whatcom County, where she drives an electric car and has solar panels on her home. A Sierra Club member, she backs the push to expand renewable energy to combat climate change by phasing out fossil fuels.

But she does not support a new project that would place a solar energy farm on Badger Mountain in north-central Washington's Douglas County, where she was raised.

Her big concern is the fate of the greater sage grouse, a chubby bird of the shrubsteppe with a round head and long tail that is listed by the state as an endangered species.

"The sage grouse is already grappling with droughts and fires ... Badger Mountain is the last stronghold," said Kane-Ronning, a psychologist, in testimony last November before a state council that will decide whether to permit the 200-megawatt project.

This solar farm proposed by Avangrid Renewables would place arrays on portions of 2,274 acres and be coupled with battery storage.

The Badger Mountain project is one of the friction points in escalating conflicts over where to put Washington solar energy farms. Developers' interest in these projects has soared since the 2019 passage of a state law that calls for a transition, by 2045, to electricity generated without the release of greenhouse gas emissions. As of early June, the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) reports more than 40 proposed solar projects that collectively would lease more than 80,000 acres, a portion of which could be covered with solar panels.

Much of the power produced by these large-scale solar projects would be delivered to the Puget Sound region and other parts of Western Washington. Most of the proposed sites are east of the Cascades, with the greatest concentration in the sun-drenched Columbia Basin plateau. The demand for this power would further expand if — as part of the efforts to save endangered runs of chinook and sockeye salmon — four dams on the Lower Snake River are eventually removed.

WDFW has been on the front line of this solar boom. Department staff field questions from prospective developers and suggest design modifications to ease the impact on wildlife.

So far only two commercial-scale projects are in operation. More than 80% of the projects tracked by department officials still are in an exploratory phase, which means developers may have acquired leases from land operators but have yet to file permit applications. Most of these sites are included in an agency map presented last September to the state Commission of Fish and Wildlife.

Adam Maxwell, a senior policy manager at Audubon Washington, says the WDFW project map offers a good overview of where developers see the most promising sites.

"A decent number may not pan out based on what developers learn about potential conflicts, but many more will move on to permitting, and I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we will see proposed in the next 10 to 20 years," Maxwell said.

WDFW officials say they hope more solar projects would be placed on already developed sites such as the rooftops of large stores and other developed or disturbed areas, according to Michael Garrity, the department's division manager for energy, water and major projects.

During the last session, state lawmakers did pass legislation that would help fund community solar projects at locations such as industrial areas, brownfields and other developments. Another bill that became law creates tax and other incentives to develop parking lot canopies that would be topped by solar panels.

And Puget Sound Energy, which in 2020 relied on natural gas and coal-fired power for 47% of its electricity, has invested $3 million in 48 community solar projects during the past five years.

But so far, most investor interest has been in large-scale projects on arid lands that have yet to be developed for commercial or industrial use.

The Badger Mountain project less than 4 miles outside of East Wenatchee is located on a kind of tabletop formation. It would be largely developed on range and farmland by Avangrid Renewables, a subsidiary of Avangrid, an energy company active in 24 states with $40 billon in assets.

To permit the project, Avangrid has opted to bypass Douglas County and go through a state permitting process conducted by the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council. Solar and other renewable-energy project developers have often taken this route when they expect a lot of controversy, and that has sometimes frustrated county officials as well as some Republican legislators, who during the last legislative session unsuccessfully tried to pass a bill putting a moratorium on the state permitting process for alternative energy projects.

Douglas County's three commissioners, in a letter submitted to the siting council, said the Badger Mountain proposal does not fit with local land-use regulations, and also want other sites to be considered. "The project represents large-scale industrial development in a rural area of the County, which already exhibits a desired mix of residential and agricultural uses that is a foundation of our customs and culture," stated the March 30 letter.

In project documents submitted to the council, Avangrid officials said the project encompasses dryland agricultural and range lands, and would be largely blocked from the view of population centers by the terrain's topography. They stated that the project would not be high-quality sage grouse habitat, and that surveys did not spot any of the birds or droppings that would indicate their past presence.

"In siting and designing the project, Avangrid Renewables has taken a thoughtful and transparent approach to avoid impacts to natural resources," said Craig Gilvarg, director of Avangrid Renewables, in a statement.

But Kane-Ronning, in a June 8 visit to Badger Mountain with other Sierra Club members, said she spotted sage grouse near the project site and sage grouse droppings within the boundaries of the proposed solar farm.

"My heart hurt. It was awful to see the breadth of what they will do,"  Kane-Ronning said.

WDFW does not support the project's current location, citing a "unique mosaic of habitats" that sage grouse use on the Badger Mountain plateau, according to an April letter submitted to the state siting council by Brock Hones, the department's north central regional director. In that letter, Hones also lists concerns about other sensitive species that use the area, such as ferruginous hawks, and suggested the project be moved 15 miles to the northeast.

Another major solar farm proposal that will undergo WDFW review is the Wautoma project in south central Washington's Benton County. The permitting process was launched this spring by Innergex for a solar farm targeted to occupy about 3,000 acres on flat, open ground with battery storage. It could be online as soon as late 2025, according to project documents.

It would be built in an area southeast of Yakima where other projects are proposed. Garrity of WDFW said there can be cumulative impact to wildlife from such development.

Beginning in July, Washington State University will lead an effort, funded by the Legislature, to meet with stakeholders including farmers, ranchers and solar developers. The goal is to develop a kind of screening map to show areas of least conflict and be a useful tool in guiding future development, according to Karen Janowitz of Washington State University's energy program.

Tribes also have been invited to participate, and conversations are ongoing about how they might be involved in this effort, according to Janowitz.

The stakeholder meetings are supposed to result in a map that would be ready in 2023.

"We wish it would have happened a few years ago ... It hopefully gets started quickly," Garrity said.