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Commercial Solar Arrays On Farmland Cropping Up Bountifully—And Stirring Opposition

A former grass seed field alongside I-5 just south of Woodburn, Oregon, now hosts this commercial solar array, which was installed last fall.
Tom Banse
NW News Network
A former grass seed field alongside I-5 just south of Woodburn, Oregon, now hosts this commercial solar array, which was installed last fall.

In farm fields from the Willamette Valley to the Kittitas Valley and east to Idaho, energy developers want to plant a new crop: commercial solar arrays. But a surge in utility-scale solar farm applications is generating pushback.

Farmland preservation advocates, who might normally be allies of green power, are trying to block solar projects on high-value cropland.

A farm field that borders right up against Interstate 5 between Salem and Portland probably drew little attention when it was growing grass seed. But now the field has sprouted 12 acres of solar panels. Row after long, shiny row angled a little bit toward the south toward the sun, it’s one of the more prominent examples of cropland turned into solar farm.

Farmer and landowner Dan Mullen said he was having a hard time generating a profit from the triangular field. The ground lacks irrigation when it is not soaked with runoff from the freeway. And farming it required extra care to avoid sending clouds of dust or pesticides over I-5 traffic.

So Mullen welcomed the guaranteed income offered by a solar energy developer.

"It was a diversification of my farm is how I looked at it,” he said. “It's just another thing I'm farming. So I've got vegetable crops, I've got permanent crops and field crops. Now I've got a solar crop.”

Farmer Dan Mullen said he leased cropland to a solar developer to diversify his farm's finances.
Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Farmer Dan Mullen said he leased cropland to a solar developer to diversify his farm's finances.

Mullen is a fifth-generation farmer from Saint Paul, Oregon, who says he wants to keep the 1,500 acre operation viable for his children and family. Mullen said farms like his are being peppered with solicitations from solar developers, even in some cases after the county commission imposed a temporary moratorium on solar farm applications in March.

"I am actually thankful that the commission did put a moratorium on it right now to come together and bring everybody to the table,” he said. "Let's make this sound for everybody.”

Mullen said he took "some heat" from friends in farming for signing a long-term lease with the solar company—and his project, which went online late last year, wasn't even that controversial.

'There is a time and a place for everything'

Across the Pacific Northwest, some neighbors and farmland preservation groups want to forbid commercial solar on prime cropland. Daniel Klug objects to an array proposed on a farm next to his elderly mother-in-law's home southeast of Salem.

"For me it's hard because I want to see renewable energy,” Klug said. “But as my father would say, there is a time and a place for everything. There are better places and better ways for these renewable energy sources to be set up.”

Like, Klug said, on non-agricultural land of which there's plenty.

File photo of a farm in Marion County, Oregon. Land use groups and individuals argue that prime farmland is irreplaceable and too precious to develop.
Credit Tracy Robillard / NRCS -
File photo of a farm in Marion County, Oregon. Land use groups and individuals argue that prime farmland is irreplaceable and too precious to develop.

Prime farmland is too precious and irreplaceable to give over to encroaching development, according to individuals such as Klug and to increasingly engaged land use groups such as 1000 Friends of Oregon.

"We are losing more and more of our top-rate farmland," Klug said. "Oregon and the Willamette Valley have been known for the last 180 years for such good farmland.”

Oregon has state land use guidelines designed to steer large solar facilities away from high-value soils, although projects up to 12 acres can be exempted. That's why nearly all of the current surge in project applications in the Willamette Valley each cover 12 acres or less.

'You can't just put solar anywhere'

Separately, Oregon and Washington have ambitious renewable energy policies that require utilities to generate an increasing percentage of their electricity from "green" sources such as solar.

Jason Carr, director of community relations for solar company Cypress Creek Renewables, said a narrow set of criteria including topography, lease cost and access to power transmission leads developers to farmland.

"A question that often comes up is, why not just build on sub-par land or even in industrial parks. I think that is a valid question,” Carr said at a public hearing in Salem. ”Again, I'd say you can't just put solar anywhere. It must be close to a substation.”

Carr said industrial land is often too expensive.

In a later interview, he suggested some counties are "over-reacting" to understandable concerns. Carr calculated that if every commercial solar array approved or proposed in super popular Marion County, Oregon, were built, it would cover 0.0013 percent of all the farmland in the county.

"I don't think it's about the percentage," replied 1000 Friends of Oregon staff attorney Meriel Darzen by phone on Monday. She said it's about rules and policies that are in place for a reason.

Marion County received 33 applications for commercial solar projects on farmland by the time the county commission said time out. Next door Yamhill County is nearly as inundated. It's gotten 21 applications for solar arrays on agricultural land. Farmland in Clackamas, Polk and Jackson counties also has drawn developer interest recently.

Can solar development and farmland protection be reconciled?

Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson said no other issue in her 16 years in office turned out people as much as this one.

"It's interesting because there is a group of people on the philosophical side that see it as connected with climate change and clean energy, that type of thing, and see solar farms as a mechanism to make that happen,” she said. “And then there are others that see it as a use of prime farmland that doesn't necessarily meet the intent of the protection of farmland that Oregon has put in with its land use laws. Those are two kinds of colliding philosophies.”

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network

Carlson said she's unsure if the interests of solar developers and farmland protection can be reconciled, but her county is going to try by using a work group with an October deadline to recommend a way forward.

Last month, the Yamhill County commission voted 2-1 to simply ban commercial solar arrays on prime farm soil. Previously submitted permit applications can proceed under the old zoning.

In Washington state, a dispute over a proposed 200-acre solar array on five farm sites near Ellensburg is about to escalate to the governor's office. Democrat Jay Inslee will have to decide whether to uphold or override a Kittitas County moratorium on commercial solar projects.

In Oregon, a solar developer seeking to overturn the denial of an 80-acre solar array proposed on farmland near Medford awaits a potentially precedent-setting ruling from the state Court of Appeals.

PGE, Pacific Power or Puget Sound Energy, as the case may be, are required by federal law to buy the power generated from the independently-developed solar projects in their territories at the same price as traditional electricity sources. Federal solar production tax credits are also important drivers behind the project economics.

Solar developers on the prowl in the Northwest include national companies such as North Carolina-based Pine Gate Renewables and California-based Cypress Creek Renewables as well as local competitors such as Sulus Solar of Portland and TUUSSO Energy of Seattle.

Multiple other companies have proposed very large solar arrays spanning from 800 to as much as 7,000 acres on arid lands east of the Oregon Cascades. Those projects are mostly in the preliminary stages of site review and drawing fewer objections.

Copyright 2018 Northwest News Network

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.