Restrictions on new solar arrays being built on high-value farmland are likely on the way in Oregon, but not before two dozen projects will be built in Marion County.
The Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission is scheduled to enact new regulations at its Jan. 24 meeting that would effectively end most new solar farms in the Willamette Valley.
“We see a threat to high-value farmland so that’s what this rulemaking is all about,” said Roger Kaye, president of Friends of Marion County. “In my experience, solar arrays are another of these uses that are chewing up Oregon’s prime farmland.”
But proponents of the solar arrays on farmland said the new regulations could remove millions of acres of land from possible solar use, often land that is not productive for farming.
Regardless, there are 24 sites in Marion County already approved and if all are built, it would give the county 367 acres of solar arrays on a total of 31 farms out of 289,383 acres deemed high value.
Current rules allow farms to use 12 to 20 acres of land zoned Special Agriculture and Exclusive Farm Use for photovoltaic solar generation.
Marion County has the most acreage of soil classified as high-value farmland in the state so it has the most at stake.
“It’s going to be a lot bigger impact for us,” Marion County planning commissioner Joe Fennimore said. “We have a lot better soils in Marion County than Polk County.”
Solar farms in Oregon
In a solar farm, farmers lease a portion of their land to a solar company. That company sells the electricity to a power company, Portland General Electric in the case of most in Marion County.
Solar farmers can receive between $1,000 and $4,000 per acre depending on location, and most solar developers need at least 5 acres to make a viable solar array.
Oregon has allowed solar farms on farmland since 1973.
But it wasn’t until October 2011 that development quickened. It was then the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission adopted more specific rules on solar arrays: 12 acres on high-value farmland, 20 acres on non-high-value farmland and 100 acres on farmland deemed not suitable for growing crops.
Counties were allowed to opt out of allowing solar farms, but most didn’t. Marion County approved its first applications for solar farms in 2015.
“We didn’t even know about it,” Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said. “It got away from us. The legislature passed it. It allowed the planning commission to approve it.”
It wasn’t until the past few years when solar arrays were built on high-visibility farmland that many realized it was possible, but by then solar developers had made inroads with farmers all over the state and invested over $1 billion building them.
Marion County’s solar problem
The Marion County Commissioners decided in March 2018 to stop taking applications for solar farms.
After a contentious commission meeting where dozens of people on both sides of the issue expressed complaints, the commission placed what was termed a moratorium on future solar farms.
“We’ve taken the position that no more solar fields, no more solar things come to Marion County in EFU land,” Cameron said.
In April 2018, Yamhill County opted to no longer allow solar farms, a move Polk County had previously taken.
Marion County allowed applications to be taken another 30 days after the decision and by the deadline, 15 more sites were applied for.
Currently, five sites outside of Gervais, Silverton, Turner, Salem and Woodburn have been constructed for a total of 68 acres of solar panels in the county.
In total, 31 sites in the county have been approved for a total of 367 acres of solar panels with one 12-acre site still under review.
Of the 331,852 acres in Marion County zoned Special Agricultural or Exclusive Farm use, 289,363 acres are deemed high-value farm soil.
If all approved solar panels are constructed, less than 0.1 percent of the high-value farmland in Marion County would have solar panels.
Not far from Marion County’s offices on Cordon Road is a site where a solar farm has been approved.
“Once that construction starts, I’m sure we’ll start getting phone calls, too,” Fenimore said.
Marion County can’t find a resolution
When Marion County decided to stop taking applications, it was incorrectly termed a moratorium. That implied there would be an end date and the county would once again take applications.
“They basically took it out of the code,” Fennimore said.
The county gathered a group of stakeholders from various interests including the solar power industry and environmental groups to craft new recommendations to bring to the Marion County Commissioners by October.
“We couldn’t come to a consensus,” Fennimore said. “We stopped the meetings at that point.”
But it had become clear the state was going to address the issue.
“This is a general agreement in that if the state’s going to make rules, we should wait to come up with our own rules,” said Ben Williams of Friends of French Prairie, who was on the committee.
Farmer Dan Mullen said he leased cropland to a solar developer to diversify his farm’s finances. (Photo: Tom Banse / Northwest News Network)
State commission to issue new rules
Over the past decade, solar arrays have become a huge economic driver in Oregon as $1.9 billion has been invested, according to Renewable Northwest.
As many as 140 proposed solar farms on EFU land have been submitted for approval in Oregon, but a small number have been constructed. In the Willamette Valley, 86 have been proposed and if those are all constructed, they would occupy 957 acres.
By comparison, about 56 projects in EFU land has been proposed in eastern, central and southern Oregon. If constructed, those would occupy about 17,000 acres.
The LCDC addressed solar arrays on high-value farm soil in 2018 and formed a committee to make recommendations.
The most recent draft of recommendations from the committee, dated January 10, would prohibit solar development on high-value farmland by not allowing development on land that has a history of irrigation.
The proposed language would still allow dual-use solar projects of up to 20 acres at locations such as sheep farms – like the one at Sheep Solar outside of Turner – or bee farms on the same land as a solar farm.
Proponents of solar power say the draft rules would undermine Oregon’s energy projects and climate change will negatively affect agriculture in the state more than solar development.
“If the draft rule as proposed is adopted there will be significantly decreased opportunities to site solar in the Western Part of the state,” said Amy Berg Pickett, the senior northwest zoning and outreach manager for Cypress Creek Renewables.
“The Oregon small businesses that support the solar industry will be negatively impacted. Citizens of Oregon in the Willamette Valley that prioritize the importance of balancing renewable energy infrastructure with the other goals of the state will have fewer opportunities to support clean, renewable energy. New and emerging energy professionals will find way fewer opportunities to work in Oregon.”
According to Renewable Northwest, there are 1,459,588 acres of high-value farmland in the Willamette Valley and 954 acres are subject to applications for solar facilities.
Even if the state Land Conservation and Development Commission adopts the more restrictive regulations, approved sites – including the 24 in Marion County – can still build solar arrays if they do it within two years.
“I understand there’s some farmers who want this because they’ve got unproductive land and they can make some money on it, but there’s also farmers that would like to maybe put houses on their farm to make money on it,” Cameron said.
“You take it out of farm production one way or the other, and so that’s the thing with me.”