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Up to 146,000 acres of the Northwest – much of it farmland – could be converted to solar production by 2050, according to a recent study.
In addition, wind power production could directly impact nearly 8,800 acres.
The American Farmland Trust used National Renewable Energy Lab data to study several scenarios, said Addie Candib, Pacific Northwest regional director for the trust. AFT is a nonprofit that works to protect and conserve farmland.
The cost of solar developments will impact the number and size of them, Candib said. The lower the cost, the bigger the developments.
The AFT projects solar developments will be built on a maximum of 42,000 acres in Idaho; 75,000 acres in Oregon and 29,000 acres in Washington.
Land used for wind power developments is split into two categories, direct permanent impact and total area impact.
Direct impact is the land area altered by wind energy development. The total impacted area is defined as the entire footprint of a wind farm.
Using the lowest-cost scenario, the direct impact of wind generation would be 953 acres in Idaho; 5,600 acres in Oregon and 2,755 acres in Washington, according to AFT.
The estimated total area impacted by wind farms is 953,000 acres in Idaho; 5.6 million acres in Oregon and nearly 306,000 acres in Washington.
The numbers reflect the projections for all land expected to be converted to solar or wind by 2050, not necessarily just agricultural land.
Agricultural land, however, stands to be disproportionately impacted by energy development because it is typically flat and easy to build on, Candib said.
Those projections don’t “sound like a lot,” Candib said, but Washington lost about 90,000 acres of ag land from 2000 at 2016 to all uses, including urban development and low-density residential development.
“Assuming we stay on the track that we’re on … you’re tacking on an additional 20 to 30%,” she said. “It is concerning.”
Land can be leased to solar or wind developers for more than it can be leased for agriculture, so landowners may be tempted to consider energy developments, Candib said.
She used the example of solar leases on Washington Department of Natural Resources-owned grazing land, which can bring in as much as $300 per acre, while grazing leases bring in $2 to $3 per acre.
“So there’s a significant financial incentive for DNR to lease to solar developers,” Candib said.
Several power developments are underway in the Northwest.
One in southern Idaho would cover roughly 1,000 acres.
In Oregon, about 31,000 acres are slated for solar projects, 48,000 acres for wind projects and 62,000 acres for combined wind and solar projects under the state’s jurisdiction.
The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission lists up to 13,342 acres slated for solar and wind projects.
Numerous other wind and solar projects have been approved or constructed at the county level, representatives of the state agencies say.
The AFT supports renewable energy development and investing in technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Candib said, but it also recognizes the importance of food production and the community, economic and environmental benefits of agriculture.
“There are paths forward to develop renewable energy that doesn’t compromise our best agricultural land, but it requires some intentional planning and policy making,” she said.
The organization recommends building solar development on marginal land or land that won’t compromise or displace agriculture.
Prime farmland should be protected, she said.
If solar projects are proposed for prime soils, she said they should be dual use, in which solar panels are installed in a way that allows agriculture such as livestock grazing around them.
“Solar projects on farmland should be farmer-led and developed in partnership with the agricultural community,” she said.
In theory, solar land can be mitigated and returned to agriculture when the life of a solar project ends, Candib said.
“That said, I don’t think we have a lot of examples even to look at to see what does it look like for that solar energy to be removed and (the land) returned to ag production successfully,” she said.
Taking land out of ag production can have “ripple effects” in the farm community and economy, Candib said.
“Thirty years from now, you could take the solar panels off and make it open space again, but is there still a farmer who wants to farm it? Are there still farm retailers available to support that business? Is there still a marketplace for the products they’re going to grow?” she said.
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