USDA grows solar power in rural Oregon despite limited transmission, assistance

By Alex Baumhardt (Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Dec. 3, 2023 2 p.m.

Historic funding to the Rural Energy for America program has helped fund more than three dozen rural solar projects in Oregon this year

The solar component of the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility was completed in March 2022. Portland General Electric partnered with NextEra Energy Resources to build a first-of-its-kind facility that will use an innovative battery technology that supporters are calling a “game changer” for Oregon’s renewable energy transition.

The solar component of the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility was completed in March 2022. Portland General Electric partnered with NextEra Energy Resources to build a first-of-its-kind facility that will use an innovative battery technology that supporters are calling a “game changer” for Oregon’s renewable energy transition.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

More farmland across the U.S. will need to host power-generating solar panels for the country to decarbonize the electric grid and meet targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture.

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But that’s not the sell that officials at the USDA’s Rural Development office use to entice Oregon farmers and rural business owners to get onboard.

“We estimate that our customers are saving between 40% and 100% on their electricity bills,” said Margaret Hoffman, Oregon director for the rural development office.

Those customers are farmers and small business owners across the state who’ve applied for historic federal funding to put solar panels on their land and businesses through the Rural Energy for America Program. It’s been around since 2008 but received a record $1 billion in funding as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress in 2022. It is now, according to Hoffmann, the single largest investment in rural electrification since the 1930s, and farmers and business owners are eager to jump on it.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick of interest in the program,” Hoffman said.

In the last year the office has invested more than $4 million in 38 solar projects in rural Oregon. But challenges with a lack of transmission for the electricity, and a lack of local technical assistance – including help applying for grants to offset the cost of solar installations – remain. Hoffman, who previously served as energy policy advisor for former Oregon Govs. John Kitzhaber and Kate Brown, said it’s something she’s trying to champion as demand for solar in rural Oregon grows.

Small scale

Hoffman said solar installations that provide community-level energy are the “bread and butter” of the federal rural energy program.

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Big solar installations, like the state’s first proposed large-scale solar park and farm in the Willamette Valley, have drawn more criticism or concern in rural communities. The Muddy Creek project in Linn County would cover 1,100 acres. The Rural Energy for America program funds projects that wouldn’t require more than a few acres and is geared at smaller solar installations that can provide clean power directly to businesses and neighboring homes.

Hoffman said projects can be everything from solar panels on a production facility that cut energy costs, to solar panels on a barn or in a field that can in turn help reduce the high costs of pumping water for farm irrigation.

One smaller grant recipient, Trail Distilling in Oregon City, got $73,000 to help pay for roof-mounted solar panels that have brought its energy bills down to about $13 per month, Hoffman said. A $1 million grant to fund a community solar project on city-owned industrial property in Ontario in eastern Oregon is slated to save the city more than $50,000 per year in reduced energy costs.

Challenges

Critics of the proposed Muddy Creek solar installation on Willamette Valley farmland have said solar developments should happen in eastern Oregon, where there is more abundant and less fertile land. But electric transmission lines from the east part of the state to the west are still underdeveloped, and much of the land is owned by the federal government, which makes siting for solar development difficult.

“If you look at the eastern part of the state, there’s a lot of Bureau of Land Management land, there’s a lot of Forest Service land, and some of that land has heightened protection because it’s either sage grouse territory or there’s a threatened plant species or something like that,” Hoffman said. Siting on federal lands, which includes undergoing a rigorous environmental impact assessment, can cost millions.

Then, there’s the cost of building the grid that’s needed to transmit the electricity. New transmission lines cost about $1 million per mile to build.

“So if you have to build a project that’s 15 miles away from the nearest transmission line, you just added $15 million to your costs,” she said.

On top of that, some large utilities charge a “wheeling fee” – essentially charging solar developers and producers a fee for using any part of the utilities’ transmission lines to transfer energy to the utilities’ customers.

These more expensive issues aside, Hoffman said the greatest challenge is helping farmers and business owners ask for the federal money they need to develop solar on their own lands.

“I think that the biggest challenge that we see is that an agricultural producer and a small business owner need technical assistance in order to write the grant and get all of the materials that are required to access the federal funding together,” Hoffman said. “Any investments we can be making in technical assistance increases the equitable access to our program.”

This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501(c)(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: info@oregoncapitalchronicle.com. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and X.

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