Filling the Void

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Marion Weatherford at his wheat and wind farm on the Columbia plateau

The growth of wind and solar industries brings a critical source of revenue and jobs to rural counties, and the occasional dustup over land use.

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Driving south on Highway 19 from Arlington on the Columbia River, the road climbs steadily through rolling hills. After only a few miles, the road reaches the Columbia plateau, where dryland wheat farms stretch as far as the eye can see.

Marion Weatherford owns a wheat farm on the plateau close to where his family has been farming for five generations. “Our great-great-grandfather came over on the Oregon Trail when he was 16, in 1860,” Weatherford says. In 1881 he started farming wheat.

Weatherford and his two brothers still grow wheat. “It’s arid with very little rainfall. About the only thing you can grow out here is dryland wheat, or raise livestock,” Weatherford says.

All three of them have off-farm jobs to pay the bills and keep the farm going. “It takes a lot of land to be profitable enough to support a family,” he says.

But now he and his brothers have a new source of income. In 2019 Avangrid Renewables brought the 201-megawatt Montague wind farm online, and 13 of the project’s wind turbines are located on Weatherford’s land. He is not sure how much he will earn in royalties just yet, but he and his brothers hope the wind project will pay them enough to allow one of them to return to farming full-time.

“One of the nice things about wind power: It doesn’t take very much acreage out of use for farming,” Weatherford says. He can grow wheat right up to the base of each turbine.

0121 renewablesCunninghamFarmers can plant wheat close to the base of the wind turbines.  Photo: Nick Cunningham

His farm is hardly the only one combining farming and wind power. Standing on the plateau in Gilliam County, hundreds of turbines are visible in every direction.

Renewable energy is growing quickly in Oregon as costs continue to decline. As of 2018, large hydropower accounted for 43% of Oregon’s electricity, followed by coal at 25% and natural gas at 21%.

At the time, wind only accounted for 4.7% and solar at 1.3%, but more updated figures will likely show improvement for renewables, especially with the shutdown of the Boardman coal plant in October.

A wave of new projects have recently come online or are under construction. The 201-megawatt Montague project outside of Arlington started up in 2019. Portland General Electric is building the 380-megawatt Wheatridge project in Morrow County, a cutting-edge installation that combines solar, wind and battery storage, which, when completed in 2021, will be the largest of its kind in the country.

PacifiCorp aims to build more than 4,300 megawatts by 2023 across its 10-state operating area, which includes Oregon.

Still, there is a long way to go. The transition to 100% renewable energy will require scaling up of solar and wind installations several times over. Given the footprint of utility-scale solar and wind, much of Oregon’s transition to clean energy will necessarily unfold in rural areas.

In some cases, conflict can arise. Like many issues in the American West, the tension boils down to the appropriate use of land and water, and local communities bristle when they feel ignored. But discord tends to be the exception, not the rule.

Renewables cannot completely replace the hole left over by the decline of timber and other manufacturing, but in much of rural Oregon, the influx of new jobs and investment from renewable-energy projects is a welcome development.

Despite the urban-rural divide over multiple attempts at cap and trade, and over climate change more generally, the growth of renewables seems to provoke considerably less controversy. Indeed, an October poll found that 79% of American voters support renewable energy in general, and 69% support a transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Lake County in south-central Oregon spans more than 8,000 square miles and has less than 8,000 residents. At less than 1 person per square mile, the population density is so low that the county meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of “frontier.”

Historically, the area depended on farming, ranching and timber. Most of the sawmills disappeared with the decline of timber in the 1980s and 1990s, but agriculture remains the county’s main economic driver. Geothermal and solar energy have grown in the county, bringing in a precious source of revenue.

But the growth of renewables can also cause some tension if it lacks local input or buy-in. The proposed 60-megawatt Blue Marmot solar project has struck a nerve around Lakeview, rankling local landowners because the project’s owner, EDP Renewables, hopes to build part of the project on high-value farmland, where irrigation allows for farming and ranching in this otherwise arid landscape.

Amanda O’Bryan, owner of Shamrock Ranch in Lake County, opposes the project. EDP says the land can be returned to its original use after the life span of the installation, which should last 35 years. But O’Bryan is concerned because the company says it will leave infrastructure underneath the ground when the project is dismantled, making it difficult to till.

While the county itself is large, the amount of land for farming is limited by areas where irrigation is available. O’Bryan fears the permanent removal of irrigated farmland due to the project. “After even just two or three years of not watering the ground, you’re changing the chemical composition of the soil. Now, what was once real quality ground may not be,” O’Bryan says. “So you won’t be able to use it for agricultural land after this is all said and done.”

Another point of contention is the fact that the project consists of five small parcels that are physically separated but combined under the umbrella of a single project, which some view as an attempt by EDP Renewables to circumvent local input. Projects over a certain size go to state regulators for review, whereas counties only have a say over small solar projects.

“As much as it might frustrate most of the public, we have very little that we can do at this point. We’re reduced to what the state refers to as an ‘advisory role’ only,” Lake County Commissioner James Williams says. “People don’t like to not have control of their own fate. [EDP] is going to have to gain a little bit of trust from the community, and they’ve got a long way to go.”

EDP Renewables says that only a portion of the project is on high-value farmland and that much of the land is, in fact, unirrigated. In addition, the company says that it will transfer water rights to a site nearby, and that it will apply a seed mix to the area hosting the solar array so that fertility does not deteriorate.

The company says that machine tilling will not be affected by the project after it is decommissioned. “We are committed to ensuring no net loss in irrigated farmland, and there will be improvements to other agricultural sites in the area,” Eric Desmarais, development project manager at EDP Renewables North America, said in a statement.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Blue Marmot solar project will add $10 million in county tax revenue over the lifetime of the project, the company says. At peak construction, there will be 300 workers on-site.

0121 renewablesIT4A2061Wind farm on the Columbia plateau   Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Rob Reish lives on a farm just south of Lakeview, and part of the Blue Marmot project will be constructed on his land. He says the solar panels will go on top of land that he cannot use anyway because of high concentrations of boron in the soil, which is the result of pressure put on wells due to drought and overwatering in the region.

“When we put a new alfalfa crop in, as soon as we watered it, it all dried up and died,” Reish says. “We tried to put a crop on it the last two years. We paid $4,000 to seed it, and this year we didn’t have enough to bother to hay it.”

RELATED STORY: Rural County Stakes Future on Renewable Energy

Because the land is otherwise unproductive, he is excited for the solar panels to come in. When the project comes online, the land will bring in roughly triple what he could earn from conventional farming, he estimates, and the soil will improve over time as the boron leaches out. “It’s actually almost a godsend to have the solar project on that piece of land,” he says.

While the project remains controversial, there is no denying that solar has been a boon for the county. Lake County takes in nearly $1 million in revenue annually from solar projects, a large source of revenue for a county that generates about $15 million in taxes locally (Lake County’s 2020-2021 budget exceeds $50 million, but more than half of that comes from state and federal sources).

Scott Mobley, owner of Dog Lake Construction in Lakeview, has seen his business grow alongside the expansion of solar. Dog Lake does the earthworks, trenching and backfilling of solar sites.

“We have 28 employees who rely on solar. I own a rock pit now that’s dependent on building roads for solar. It’s helped our company tremendously,” Mobley says. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without that today. And my employees wouldn’t be either. It pays good and we get our paychecks on time.” The average pay for his workers is between $23 and $25 per hour. “It’s a good business to be in. I’m all for the green energy,” Mobley says.

RELATED STORY: How Solar Survives Without Government Backing

About 100 miles north of the Blue Marmot project, a much larger solar project is in the works outside of the unincorporated town of Christmas Valley. A company called Archway Solar Energy is building a 400-megawatt solar project on more than 4,000 acres of arid land. Unlike Blue Marmot, there has been virtually no opposition, as it does not conflict with irrigated farmland.

“They’ve chosen a piece of land with no water rights, miles away from any sage grouse leks, miles away from any big-game habitat area. It’s only got a few landowners and they are very comfortable with it,” Lake County Commissioner James Williams says. “It’s a perfect site for it, honestly.”

President-elect Joe Biden has proposed an ambitious $2 trillion spending package on renewable energy, energy efficiency, electric vehicles and other green infrastructure. It remains to be seen if the new U.S. Congress can enact some version of that proposal into law, but a lot of experts from around the world have called for green stimulus as a way to solve multiple crises at once.

Funneling billions or even trillions into clean technologies can draw down carbon emissions while potentially creating millions of new jobs. The approach has been endorsed by the International Energy Agency, the International Monetary Fund and hundreds of the world’s top economists.

Renewable energy in Oregon, in theory, could be a big job creator. For every $1 million invested in utility-scale PV solar, three local construction jobs can be created and about six manufacturing jobs, according to the International Energy Agency. Rooftop solar is more labor intensive, creating around 10 construction jobs.

In 2019 Oregon ranked 22nd in terms of the number of jobs in solar at 3,750. With abundant sunshine, especially east of the Cascades, and an array of market factors working in the industry’s favor, there is plenty of room to grow.

“You can’t install a bunch of renewable energy without people. And these are good construction jobs. For a lot of them in Oregon, you need to be an electrician, and an electrician is a really good profession,” says Joe Mazzarella, a system designer for Sunlight Solar Energy, a solar PV developer with offices in Portland and Bend.

In Oregon renewable-energy technicians, who install small rooftop solar arrays, make an average wage of $30.85 per hour. Pay for an electrician working on a utility-scale solar project averages $36.20 per hour.

Sunlight Solar has about 20 employees working in its Bend location. Mazzarella thought the pandemic would hit the solar business, but sales have been “fairly steady and actually kind of busy lately.” The economy contracted, but there was a silver lining. “You’ve seen a lot of people move here, and that’s only accelerated because of the pandemic. People don’t want to live in big cities; they want social distance, they want to live out here in the country,” he says.

State and federal support for renewable energy “definitely can be an economic driver for people to buy solar, and therefore allows people like me to have a job,” Mazzarella says. Ratepayers for big utilities such as Pacific Power and Portland General Electric pay a small fee in their monthly bills into a fund managed by Energy Trust of Oregon, a nonprofit, which provides incentives for renewable energy.

For example, Energy Trust of Oregon subsidizes a residential solar system by 30 cents per watt, capped at $2,400 per customer. Commercial projects also have incentives, ranging from 20 to 45 cents per watt, depending on the size.

The federal government also subsidizes solar. Homeowners received a tax credit equivalent to 26% of the cost of a rooftop system in 2020, which steps down to 22% for systems installed in 2021. The credit will expire in 2022. Mazzarella of Sunlight Solar Energy says that his company has seen high demand recently as people rush to take advantage of the expiring credit.

There is talk in Washington, D.C., of extending those incentives as part of a much broader federal stimulus package, but for now, Mazzarella says his company is assuming the subsidies expire.

Even as incentives help, concerns about climate change are also driving sales in solar, he adds. On top of that, Mazzarella says customers increasingly want solar paired with battery storage to guard against power outages. Widespread blackouts in California from wildfires in the past three years have fed into anxiety about an unstable grid.

The historic wildfires in Oregon last September could magnify those concerns. “People see people on the news without power for extended periods, and they say, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me.’ We are seeing more and more of that,” Mazzarella says.

About a decade ago, Oregon saw an initial burst of investment in renewables, largely due to federal subsidies. But the recent uptick in investment — which is occurring in many parts of the country, not just in Oregon — is the result of more durable forces. Solar and wind are increasingly the most economically attractive sources of electricity.

An October study from consulting firm Lazard found that solar and wind beat out coal and natural gas on cost, even after excluding federal subsidies. The firm pegged the average levelized cost of electricity for unsubsidized utility-scale solar at about $31 per MWh, and $26/MWh for wind. Natural gas stood at $28/MWh, while coal cost a much higher $41/MWh.

A separate study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that solar and wind are the cheapest forms of new electricity generation in most parts of the world already. When a utility needs new power generation, wind and solar are increasingly the best option. “Our 2019 resource plan identified renewables as the most cost-effective resource to meet our energy needs, and with renewable costs still falling, that’s likely to continue,” says Steve Corson, a spokesperson for Portland General Electric.

Another factor working in favor of renewables is the growing trend from corporations to build or buy renewable power to clean up their own carbon footprints. Across the U.S., corporate procurement of renewable energy may account for as much as 20% of utility-scale renewable energy over the next decade, according to a study from consulting firm IHS Markit. In Oregon, for example, Facebook financed the construction of large solar projects near Prineville to power its data center.

While the economics are compelling, there is still some uncertainty in terms of policy support. Federal subsidies are set to expire unless Congress enacts new legislation. Meanwhile, Oregon’s renewable portfolio standard requires investor-owned utilities to obtain 50% of their power from renewables by 2040, with interim targets along the way.

But Oregon’s major utilities are on track to meet these targets well ahead of schedule. Faster deployment may require more aggressive policies from the state and federal government.

In the wake of several failed attempts to pass cap-and-trade legislation, Gov. Kate Brown signed Executive Order 20-04 in March 2020 aimed at cutting the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions 45% below 1990 levels by 2035. The order mostly steers clear of the electricity sector, instead focusing on transportation and industry, but it does call on the Public Utility Commission to help utilities pursue decarbonization. The order may have little practical impact, but it sets the tone for where the state wants to go.

Another hurdle is the electric grid itself. Unlike other parts of the country, much of the American West does not have an integrated electric grid in the form of a regional transmission organization, which coordinates transmission over a multistate electric grid.

Some large utilities in Oregon, such as Portland General Electric, participate in the Western Energy Imbalance Market, which allows for buying and selling power in neighboring states, such as California. The initiative is a first step at regional integration and has offered cost savings and better load balancing.

But there is still no entity that coordinates transmission. “There are lots of barriers to buying and selling renewable energy over a larger region without that regional transmission organization,” says Nicole Hughes, executive director of Renewable Northwest, an advocacy organization.

Critics of wind and solar often cite their intermittency — the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. To some degree, that can be addressed with a larger grid. “There is a great geographic diversity that comes with renewables. The wind peaks at a certain time in the Gorge, and it peaks at a much different time in Montana,” Hughes says. “So if we can balance those out over a large region, then we can get to 100% clean quicker. Right now we can’t do that.”

Corporations seeking to procure renewable energy also want the regional transmission organization because “they see it as an opportunity to basically inject renewables anywhere in the system and then have that meeting their load. Right now we just don’t have the infrastructure to do that,” Hughes says.

Renewable Northwest and others are pressing the Oregon Legislature to begin studying the possibility of setting up a regional transmission organization for the Pacific Northwest.

Renewable energy is no longer a niche industry. Nationally, there were nearly 250,000 Americans working in the solar industry in 2019, according to the Solar Foundation. That is roughly five times the amount of jobs in the coal industry. Also, clean energy jobs paid 25% more than the national median salary.

Meanwhile, wind-turbine service technician is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S., with a median salary of $52,910 per year in 2019.

At a time of overlapping crises — a climate crisis, an employment crisis, and a crisis for local and state budgets — renewables offer something of a no-brainer. Questions over land use will always be hot topics, but when companies work well with local communities, just about everyone stands to benefit.

0121 renewablesIT4A2127Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Renewable energy has been good thus far for Oregon. Renewable projects contributed more than $258 million in property taxes to county governments between 1998 and 2017, according to Renewable Northwest. Those figures will likely grow at a faster rate as more projects come online. “Some of these rural counties have seen a massive influx of tax dollars. It has brought a lot of jobs and investment to rural Oregon,” says Hughes.

The Montague wind farm will add $30 million to state and local coffers over its lifetime. And that is from just one project.

For landowners like Marion Weatherford, wind power offers more than just an income; it also can reinforce a way of life. “One of the things that the wind farm will be able to do is probably help to allow the land to stay in the family for more generations,” Weatherford says.

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