A first-of-its kind proposal for a solar park and sheep ranch near Brownsville in the Willamette Valley is drawing both enthusiasm and ire from area residents and farmers.
If the Muddy Creek Solar Facility is approved, it could provide emissions-free electricity to more than 30,000 homes while allowing land zoned for agriculture to be used for sheep grazing and growing native plants, according to project leaders. But those opposed say the project takes valuable farmland out of production, and could potentially drive up surrounding land prices.
At stake is a new model in Oregon for producing clean energy and supporting agriculture and livestock industries. Muddy Creek would be the state’s first large-scale commercial “agrovoltaic” or “solar grazing” project — meaning it is both producing solar energy for electricity and being used for agricultural purposes.
About 100 people tried to disrupt the first public meeting over the project in Brownsville July 25, according to a report in the Bend Bulletin. At the meeting, hosted by the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council, area farmers took issue with using 1,600 acres of land zoned for agriculture to generate electricity.
“What happened to exclusive farm use?” retired farmer Don Bowers, of Harrisburg, said at the meeting. “We shouldn’t even be here.”
The proposed site of Muddy Creek is privately owned farmland covered in non-irrigated ryegrass. It would be leased for 40 years to Qcells, the U.S. subsidiary of South Korean solar company Hanwha Q. The lease information is not publicly available.
The seven, governor-appointed members of the facility siting council will decide whether to approve the project over the next year. The council is responsible for approving and overseeing all large electricity generating facilities and will take public comments on Muddy Creek until Friday.
If approved, Qcells hopes to start construction in late 2024 and to have Muddy Creek operational by late 2026.
Though Qcells has advertised the solar park as a dual-use solar facility and sheep ranch, the Oregon Department of Energy said the agricultural intent was not included in the company’s initial paperwork. Jenny Kalez, an energy department spokesperson, said via email that the first time the agency found out the proposed facility would be used for both solar production and agriculture was at the public meeting in Brownsville. She confirmed it would be the first commercial solar grazing facility in Oregon if approved.
“Among other proposed, approved, and operating state-jurisdiction solar facilities, none have an agricultural element,” Kalez said.
In an email, Brian Tran, development manager for Qcells said the project would provide Linn County residents with clean, domestic energy on land that would continue to be preserved for agriculture.
“Linn County imports almost all its energy, making it dependent on outside sources of power. We chose this area because it has excellent access to existing energy infrastructure and the right terrain for solar panels and ranching,” Tran said.
The site proposed for Muddy Creek intersects with a PacifiCorp transmission line, which would allow the electricity generated from the panels to be sent to an existing substation nearby. That substation could reduce the voltage to levels that are safe to distribute to customers. Tran said there’s no need to build new transmission lines or substations, and the panels would be mounted on steel pipes rather than concrete pads, allowing more land to be reserved for grazing and farming.
“This project allows the ability to not only keep this site in agricultural production, but also, return the land to the landowners at the completion of the project lease,” Tran said. “Our research shows that soil health increases following the decommissioning of a properly designed solar project. It also gives families a chance to plan for the use of their land in the long term, while also keeping legacy farms intact.”
Jim Johnson, land-use and water-planning coordinator at the Oregon Department of Agriculture, testified at the Brownsville meeting that the soil where the solar farm would be placed is of high agricultural value that is rare in Oregon. He also testified that solar-grazing projects in other parts of the country have generated speculative land values surrounding them that many farmers cannot compete with.
“There’s no new farmland to buy, so how do you farm? You rent or lease land,” Johnson said of the Willamette Valley. “A farmer cannot compete with an energy company in terms of how much they pay to rent or lease the land.”
Several attendees at the July meeting in Brownville expressed concern that a foreign-owned company would be overseeing the solar farm. Hanwha Q is headquartered in South Korea, but its subsidiary Qcells is based in Irvine, California. Of the 16 solar facilities either proposed, under review or approved in Oregon, seven are owned by subsidiaries of foreign companies. Qcells also has its own manufacturing facility in Georgia, so all of the panels would be made in the U.S., Tran told the audience in Brownsville.
The agriculture industry occupies more than 40% of all surface land in the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If the U.S. is to transition to at least 40% of electricity being produced by solar by 2035, agricultural land would need to host solar panels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2021 Solar Futures Study.
Dual solar parks and farms are growing fastest in the Northeast, where some states have invested in research and offered tax incentives for projects.
Oregon State University piloted last year an agrovoltaics project to research the combination of solar energy generation and the farming of different crops. The North Willamette Research and Extension Center will become the first energy/farm research study area of its kind in the world, according to the university.
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