Lights out for bill to let Washington counties nix solar panels on farms | Rural Life

OLYMPIA — A bill to give counties and cities rather than an unelected state board the power to approve or reject solar panel arrays on farmland has failed.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said Saturday she was disappointed. She introduced Senate Bill 5206 to bar the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council from overriding local opposition to solar panels taking over farmland.

The bill stemmed from a proposal to build a 235-acre solar project on farmland in Kittitas County, a sunny and agricultural rich region in Central Washington.

County commissioners were opposed. Public meetings in the county were well attended and many residents commented, for and against, the project.

In the end, in 2018, seven unelected state employees, meeting in Olympia, outvoted by 7-1 a Kittitas County commissioner and recommended that Gov. Jay Inslee approve the project. He did.

“I’d like to revise that process and make it better for people who want to see these projects sited, but sited in the right place,” Warnick said.

“There’s got to be a middle ground,” she said. “I’ll be back. I’d like to have more conversations about it.”

The energy site council was formed in 1970 to approve large energy projects, such as oil refineries, nuclear power plants and natural gas pipelines. It has added to its portfolio any wind or solar project.

Rather go through local governments, renewable power developers seeking permits have the option to go to the state council for an “expedited process.”

The committee’s chairwoman, Kathleen Drew, and a renewable energy advocate testified against Warnick’s bill, warning it could hinder the state’s transformation to carbon-free electricity.

The bill died in the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee. Another bill that would have added tribes to the energy site council and expanded the projects the council could approve also died.

Kittitas County commissioners had passed a moratorium on solar energy projects on farmland.

By law, projects approved by the energy site council must follow local land rules. The council concluded the moratorium was neither a “land-use plan” nor “zoning ordinance.”

The council also said that by putting the panels on “disturbed farmland” the project would avoid “environmentally sensitive areas.”

A council member remarked before the final vote that the solar panels have a projected life of 30 years so covering the farmland wasn’t a “permanent conversion.”