When most people think of solar energy, they think of a few panels on the roof of someone’s home. But developers are building more and more large-scale solar projects in Oregon. Oregon officials recently approved a permit for a solar energy facility in Lake County that could become one of the country’s largest. We’ll talk about the benefits and issues related to utility scale solar in Oregon with Janine Benner, director of the Oregon Department of Energy. We also hear from Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar and Storage Industries Association.
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Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. When most people think of solar energy in Oregon, they might think of a few panels on the roof of someone’s home. But developers are building more large scale solar projects in Oregon. In fact, Oregon officials recently approved a permit for a solar energy facility in Lake County that could become one of the country’s largest. Janine Benner is the director of the Oregon Department of Energy. Angela Crowley-Koch is the executive director of the Oregon Solar + Storage Industries Association. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.
Janine Benner: Nice to be here.
Angela Crowley-Koch: Nice to be here.
Miller: Janine Benner first, when we talk about large scale solar, how big are we talking?
Benner: Thank you for the question. We’re talking bigger and bigger. The Energy Facility Siting Council, which is a seven member independent body appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate, and staffed by my agency The Oregon Department of Energy, has the responsibility for siting large scale energy facilities in the state. And they sited the first large scale solar project, Boardman Solar, in 2018, and the second one in 2020. And now it’s the majority of projects under consideration by the siting council. So I think that shows a trend for bigger and bigger projects.
You mentioned a solar project that was recently approved by the Energy Facility Siting Council, that’s the Obsidian Project. That’s 400 megawatts, which is a lot of electricity, which is fantastic, and it’s on six square miles. A way to think about that someone on my team shared with me the other day was: you drive six miles, you turn right, you drive six miles, you turn right, you drive six miles, you turn right, and where you drove around would be the impact of the solar panels on the landscape.
Miller: I think maybe my math is wrong, but if it’s six square miles, I think it’d be more like driving two miles, making a right, and driving three miles.
Benner: And my gosh, you’re so right! Yes.
Miller: Still huge, but not 36 square miles.
But, the megawatts is actually the thing that I find more confusing. I can envision driving three miles, but what does 400 megawatts mean?
Benner: 400 megawatts can power a lot of households. A megawatt hour is one megawatt of power used continuously for an hour. I wrote down some notes on how many megawatts it takes to power a city, and I can’t find them, but we’re talking multiple hundreds of households with that amount of electricity.
Crowley-Koch: If you don’t mind me jumping in, if you think about it, if you have solar on your house, you probably have like six kilowatts, or eight kilowatts. A megawatts is 1000 times a kilowatt, so that should give some scale.
Miller: Angela Crowley-Koch, how much potential do you see for more large scale solar in Oregon in particular, compared to states that are seen as as more- obviously in central and eastern Oregon there’s way more sun than on the west side, but compared to California or Arizona, what do you see as the potential in Oregon?
Crowley-Koch: Yeah, good question. There is a lot of potential. And actually, what constrains that potential is not necessarily the amount of sun that we get, but other factors. The biggest one is the proximity of the large scale solar project to the transmission system, basically to the grid. And right now, if a project is farther than one mile from that transmission system, it’s way too expensive to connect a solar project to the transmission system. And in Oregon, we just don’t have enough transmission. It’s actually a problem all around the country. But in Oregon, you could see a piece of land and think, wow, this is going to be perfect for solar, and then realize it’s just too far away to get connected.
Miller: And it would be up to the developer of the project to actually make up that difference?
Crowley-Koch: Right, they’d have to build a line that would stretch from the project all the way to the grid, and the economics are such that right now, if that’s more than a mile, it’s just not economically feasible.
Miller: Janine Benner, do you see anything on the even medium term horizon that would change that? That seems like a major reason that large scale solar in Oregon would remain pretty limited.
Benner: I do see this changing for a couple of reasons. One is, there’s an increasing awareness of the importance of transmission, to get electricity from where it’s generated to where it’s used. The recently passed federal infrastructure bill has a great deal of money for infrastructure investments in energy across the country, including transmission. There’s also this huge scale of additional carbon free renewable energy that will need to be built in the West in order to meet our very ambitious climate goals. And there’s again an increasing recognition that transmission needs to be built alongside that to enable that electricity to get to market.
Miller: Angela Crowley-Koch, one of the places that Oregonians who’ve driven along 84 may have seen a lot of renewable energy is the wind farms on either side of the Columbia River. Those are places I imagine where, because of maybe hydro before, but certainly wind now, there are major transmission lines. Is it possible to intersperse wind and solar?
Crowley-Koch: Yes, it is possible to intersperse them. And there are some utility scale solar projects up in that region. We’d like to have more. Part of the challenge with that wind farm in particular is the topography. If it’s really hilly and steep, that’s just not as great for solar.
Miller: You want flatland.
Crowley-Koch: We want mostly flat. We can take a little bit of variation, but not the steep hills like you see in the gorge.
Miller: How bullish are you on the idea that infrastructure money from the most recently passed bill or other public spending could make a big difference in terms of transmission lines going forward?
Crowley-Koch: I’m pretty bullish. It’s something in order to meet our state in our country and our world’s climate goals. And we must, because we are at a crisis point in terms of climate change, we have to be spending money on transmission. And transmission is not only expensive, but it takes a long time to develop. And so we really need those federal dollars and state effort to make sure we’re building more transmission, definitely in Oregon, but also across the country.
Miller: Janine Benner, what’s the business model for these sites, the business model for these developers, these companies? Who owns the sites, the land, the equipment, and how do these companies make their money?
Benner: Well Dave, it depends. The projects that are being built, and I bet Angela could share more details on this, are being built by developers who then sell their electricity to a utility or to a private company like Facebook or Google. The business case is very strong if you think about the scale of renewable energy development that it’s going to take to meet our goals. So if you think about how much we’ll need to be able to decarbonize by 2050 to meet the Pacific Northwest’s clean energy commitment, we’ll need eight times more wind and solar capacity than what currently exists in the region today. So you have utilities that are looking ahead in their integrated resource plans, and planning for how they’re going to meet demand, and solar is going to be a big part of that. So I think that the business case is definitely there.
Miller: Angela Crowley-Koch, do developers normally have a buyer for the electricity that they hope to produce? Is that lined up before they would put the arrays in?
Crowley-Koch: It depends. Solar projects happen in different ways. So sometimes the utility themselves will have a request for proposals out for a particular type of energy. And so if you win that RFP, you know that that utility is going to purchase your power.
There are other ways to build solar projects and find different buyers. Usually you have at least one buyer lined up for some of your power before you start down that path. But like Director Benner said, there’s so much demand now for renewable energy, that at the moment, finding a buyer is not an issue.
Miller: Janine Benner, you said that it may be that they could sell the electricity directly to a company like Facebook or Google. That seems very different than the way people who own homes or live in apartments think about getting their electricity, there’s just a utility that provides your electricity. How does it work that a company could buy their own electricity?
Benner: Well it’s actually not that unlike your home. If you’re building solar on your rooftop, you pay for it to go on and then you get the benefits of that electricity. If you’re a big company like a Facebook or a Google, and your customers are demanding that you have carbon free electricity associated with your product, then you’re going to look for a developer or a utility agreement that can guarantee that the electricity that you’re using for your facility is renewably generated. They’re new types of structures of ownership, but there are certainly cases where companies are contracting directly with utilities or with developers for that power.
Miller: Angela, to what extent are Oregonians getting electricity from these Oregon based projects?
Crowley-Koch: Good question. Some of the projects are entirely going to Oregonians, and those are community solar projects. They’re a little bigger than what you would find on your rooftop, but the maximum size is 3 MW. So they’re not the giant ones that Director Benner was talking about. And those are meant to serve the community directly.
The other projects, the larger scale ones, it’s hard to know how much solar on any given day is being used here in the state or is being exported to another state. Actually, Director Benner might have some numbers on that. The Department of Energy does a really great report every two years that has details on how much energy we use in Oregon, and how much we export. And I know there’s an update coming this year.
Benner: Angela, thanks so much for the plug of the Biennial Energy Report. And actually, your listeners can go to our website and look at the Oregon electricity resource mix, and they can see exactly how much electricity being used by Oregonians is generated by various resources.
So there’s two different ways to look at it. One is how much is a resource in Oregon, like solar, generating. And then another way to look at it is of all the electricity we, as consumers use, how much is being produced by a particular resource. They’re two completely different things, because we import and export all this electricity. Over 25% of the electricity we use in Oregon still comes from coal, even though we don’t have any coal plants left. But getting back to solar, in 2018, it was 1.3% of the electricity that Oregonians used.
Miller: I want to turn to siting. Janine Benner, you mentioned the site in Christmas Valley that recently got the go ahead to go forward. Farmers and ranchers had argued that it shouldn’t have been allowed to go ahead because of the effects that it could have on what they do, farming or ranching. What does the Energy Facility Siting Council actually consider when they have applications in front of them?
Benner: Well, thanks for that question. The siting council looks at a set of standards. And in order to receive a site certificate, the developer must demonstrate that they meet those standards. If they are able to demonstrate that, then they get a site certificate. So the types of things that the council is looking at: organizational expertise, structural effects, soil protection, land use, protected area. They look at whether the developer will be able to clean up the site when the project is done, wildlife habitat, endangered species, all sorts of things. And they look not at this amount of electricity being generated, but actually the size of the facility on the landscape when it comes to solar.
Miller: Angela Crowley-Koch, what kind of pushback do you see most often in terms of opposition to proposed projects?
Crowley-Koch: Well sometimes there are concerns about farmland, like you mentioned. One of the things we’re finding now is that some places may be used to be great for farming, but especially in, maybe Klamath County and Lake County where we’re seeing a lot of drought exacerbated by climate change, the water is not being used for irrigation anymore. And so what used to be farmland or ranch land is now actually a great site for solar.
Miller: I imagine there could be plenty of models, but is the thinking that a farmer would just sell their land because they want to get out of the business, or lease it to a developer who would then put panels all over it? What’s the ask?
Crowley-Koch: Yeah, both options are used. The landowners can sell or lease their land. One of the great things about solar, when we think about energy, we have to get our energy from somewhere and solar is such a great option because there’s no pollution, there’s no noise, it’s low to the ground, and if it is removed at the end of its project time, the land reverts to its previous state. And so in terms of trade offs, solar is really a great option.
Miller: What kind of outreach do you find that companies are doing in the communities where they are planning to build? I ask this because it does seem that in Christmas Valley, there was some real opposition among folks who had been there for a while.
Crowley-Koch: Yeah, great question. I have two OCM members that I can highlight that do some development in the southeastern part of the state who have done a really good job of reaching out to the community and working with the community. Obsidian Renewables is a good example of a company that has built a number of projects in Lake County in particular. They donate, they support a 4H program in Lakeview, they talk to all the neighbors when they’re thinking about developing, they’ve contributed a lot of money to the school foundation. New Sun Energy has built projects in Harney County, they have funded the hospital, specialty care clinic there, and the senior center. So these companies are really great partners to the community.
Now, any large scale project, whether that’s the I5 replacement bridge or a solar project, of course there will be neighbors who are complaining about it. That’s just kind of par for the course in any big project you have. But solar is really helpful to communities. In addition to those particular companies investing in the community, solar pays a lot of property tax for these counties that really need revenue for fire, police, education. In Klamath and Lake counties, solar is among the top property taxpayers in those counties, and so it really is able to provide a lot of benefits.