Central Oregon solar project could become one of the state's largest

Date:
December 16, 2022
Central Oregon solar project could become one of the state's largest

Northern Lake County is a patchwork of farms and a couple of small communities roughly 50 miles southeast of La Pine. Within a couple of years, it could also be home to Oregon’s largest solar power plant.

The 400-megawatt Obsidian Solar Center, to be built by Lake Oswego-based Obsidian Renewables LLC, is still in the blueprint stage but when complete could produce a considerable chunk of the state’s utility-scale solar power, which currently has a nameplate capacity of 726 megawatts, according to the 2022 biennial report.

According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, 1 megawatt can power around 800 homes for a year, which translates to 320,000 homes powered by the Obsidian project.Oregon is increasingly on the lookout for energy sources that can allow it to move beyond burning fossil fuels and hydroelectric power. Wind farms have sprung up in the Columbia River Gorge and now solar power is starting to make inroads in some of Oregon’s rural communities.

The Obsidian Solar Center is planned to be built on 3,921 acres of farmland halfway between the towns of Fort Rock and Christmas Valley. The facility was approved by the Oregon Department of Energy in March and received a site certificate from the state.

While there are larger ones in the review process, the Obsidian Solar Center is the largest approved state-jurisdiction solar facility to date.

The project is expected to contribute $28 million in property taxes to Lake County over its lifetime, according to project documents. County Commissioner James Williams said taxes from this and other solar projects could go toward funding local infrastructure and projects.

Laurie Hutchinson, renewable energy developer for the project, said Obsidian will make a “substantial donation” to the local school if the project is built. She also anticipates work opportunities for local contractors, housing providers and other local businesses.

The company has a deadline of February 2025 to start construction under its current certificate. Hutchinson believes construction work will start well ahead of that, possibly next year or in 2024.

Hutchinson said the area was selected partially due to its proximity to utility infrastructure. The abundance of sun is also noteworthy. Hutchinson said the area gets around 300 sunny days a year.Water rights were another factor — northern Lake County has been under a water moratorium since the 1980s. The site Obsidian selected was not actively used for agriculture and had no water rights.

“We knew we would not be displacing a high-value agricultural use,” she said.

Land use permits for the project are complete, and Hutchinson said the company is working on identifying power purchasers. Obsidian is also working through the connection process with the Bonneville Power Administration — power from the solar project will be shipped across BPA wires.

“We are on the shortlist of a few power purchasers, so we are working through that process of getting power off-takers. The interconnection process is also quite lengthy. So we are still working through that continuously,” said Hutchinson.

An agreement with a power purchaser could be finalized by the spring of 2023, she said.

Another hurdle will be finding solar modules once the company is ready for construction. China is the leading producer of solar modules but U.S. tariffs put in place because of human rights abuses now make it unfeasible to source them from that country.The U.S. has accused China of committing genocide in the Uighur-dominated province of Xinjiang. Human rights abuses have also been documented in other provinces, including Tibet, where political repression has been ongoing for decades.

Hutchinson said Korea is a possible new source of the modules and the company is also looking for modules made in the United States.

The inability to buy modules from China has created some uncertainty in the market, said Hutchison but she adds that in the long run, it will make the market more competitive. U.S. producers are being helped by the Inflation Reduction Act, which is encouraging green energy solutions, she said.Logistical challenges aside, solar power projects are growing more contentious in rural areas and Lake County is no exception.

Williams, the county commissioner, said community friction has developed as plans have rolled out to place the panels on large areas of agricultural land. Local residents have voiced concern over the preservation of wildlife and the degradation of aesthetics in the rural area.

“We have traditionally had wide open range land that people want to preserve and protect,” said Williams.

“If there is one thing to know about East Oregonians, rural Oregonians, rural communities as a whole, is that we love our land. We even sometimes love our neighbor’s land beyond what may be considered entirely healthy... But it’s because people care and they are wanting to make sure we are taking impacts into account making good choices for the future,” he adds.

Williams said aesthetics on their own are not an allowable reason for the county to deny an application. Aesthetics can be considered under conditions for approval but do not typically lead to outright denial, especially when the law recognizes it as an allowable use.

The commissioner said rural and frontier Oregon is being asked to make big sacrifices with their agricultural land for the sake of alternative energy and to help Oregon reach its climate goals.

“We don’t want urban guilt. We just want an understanding of those sacrifices and engagement at a local level to help find appropriate solutions for Oregon’s future in energy production,” he said.

The Bulletin spoke with several business owners in Fort Rock and the Christmas Valley area and none wanted to be quoted by name for this story. One said many locals are concerned the fencing around the property will hinder the movement of deer and elk.Hutchinson said Obsidian is working with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to mitigate wildlife concerns. Around 200 acres inside the project fence will not be developed and set aside for habitat resources. Mitigation lands are also located outside the fence to offset impacts on winter game habitat. There are also plans to mitigate the dust and traffic that will come from the project.

Obsidian is not the only proposed solar project in northern Lake County. Chicago-based Invenergy is developing the Archway Solar Energy Facility, also in the Fort Rock-Christmas Valley area. That project is also 400 megawatts and is planned to be located on 3,650 acres.

In terms of progress, Archway is behind the Obsidian facility — the Oregon Department of Energy received the preliminary application for a site certificate in June. The state has not yet issued a public notice for the Archway project.

Two large solar projects are also planned for Morrow County in northern Oregon. They include the 500-megawatt Wagon Trail solar project and the massive 1,250-megawatt Echo Solar project.

-Michael Kohn

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