One of the largest solar energy facilities in the country is moving forward in Southern Oregon’s Christmas Valley after receiving state approval last month — and the director of the Oregon Department of Energy says more industrial solar projects could follow.

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The Energy Facility Siting Council approved the state’s first utility-scale solar project in Boardman in 2018. It’s now approved a total of seven, and six more are under review.

“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,” Oregon Department of Energy Director Janine Benner told OPB’s Think Out Loud on Monday.

Solar generated less than 1% of electricity used in Oregon in 2019. Benner said solar power generation needs to increase significantly to meet state and regional goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Christmas Valley facility, called the Obsidian Solar Center and backed by Obsidian Renewables of Lake Oswego, will cover six square miles of land with around 1.7 million solar panels. The facility will be able to generate 400 megawatts of electricity at maximum capacity, enough to power about 76,000 homes. However, the sun isn’t always shining and solar panels require maintenance, so actual electricity production would be less.

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Solar proposals in other parts of the state could add more than 1,000 megawatts of capacity. The siting council is reviewing projects in Lake, Klamath, Umatilla and Morrow counties.

“You have utilities that are looking ahead … and planning for how they’re going to meet demand, and solar is going to be a big part of that,” Benner said. “So I think the business case is definitely there.”

Benner added that electricity generated by Oregon solar projects could be purchased by utilities or by other private companies like Google or Meta, which have data centers in the state and have pledged to run them on renewable energy.

The solar industry has been slow to develop in Oregon partly due to insufficiencies in its power grid, according to Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar and Storage Industries Association.

“If a [solar] project is farther than one mile from that transmission system, it’s way too expensive to connect a solar project to the transmission system,” Crowley-Koch said.

Large solar projects have also faced local pushback.

Obsidian Renewables had hoped to begin construction on the Christmas Valley project in 2019, but area farmers challenged the project in court. They bristled at the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural use, but a judge ultimately sided with Obsidian.

As interest from solar developers has grown in recent years, the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development added land-use restrictions to prevent commercial solar development on millions of acres of high-value farmland across the state.

With the project now approved, Obsidian Renewables has until February 2025 to begin construction. The company estimates construction will take three to four years to complete.

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