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Jeb Bladine: Energy not growing from high-value soil

We call them solar farms, but the operations aren’t growing energy from the high-value farmland lying below their arrays of solar panels. Therein lies the Oregon controversy playing out locally this month when the Yamhill County commissioners rejected a proposed 12-acre solar farm outside Yamhill.

Commissioners did well to stop that project. It’s not that we should oppose any proliferation of solar farms, but rather there is much to discuss, analyze and regulate before Oregon covers prime agricultural lands with solar arrays.

It’s an issue with roots in an Oregon law requiring large utilities, within 10 years, to buy at least 8 percent of their electricity from small alternative energy developments.

California-based Cypress Creek Renewables develops solar power projects in 15 states. The company reportedly has a $1 billion investment in its many existing and proposed Oregon projects, including those in Yamhill County.

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Jeb Bladine is president and publisher of the News-Register.

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Florida-based Origis Energy was poised to develop an 80-acre solar farm in Jackson County. But in November, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals nixed the project, saying it failed to qualify for an exception to agricultural land use goals.

Exceptions are required for solar farms covering more than 12 contiguous acres of high-value farmland, or more than 48 acres, contiguous or not, within a one-mile radius. Thus, in Yamhill County and elsewhere, there has been a surge in 12-acre projects.

Smaller developments would have been more highly regulated under House Bill 3050, which failed quickly during the 2017 legislative session. At the time, Larry Ojua, executive director of the Yamhill County Soil and Water Conservation District, testified:

“Promoting renewable energy is a worthy objective. However, we believe the long-term benefits of protecting farm land and important soils outweigh the short-term benefits produced by installing solar facilities in exclusive farm-use zones. Unlike the production of food and agricultural products, the development of solar facilities is not dependent on quality soils.”

Consequently, the district has continued to oppose local solar farm development.

The Willamette Valley predominantly features high-value farmland. That involves prime Class I and Class II soils, and desirable subclassifications of Class III and IV, including such familiar types as Carlton, Chehalem, Yamhill, Dayton, Laurelwood, Whiteson and Willakenzie.

The debate involves reducing our carbon footprint, creating new jobs and producing additional income for small farm operators. But in Oregon, the hot button is protection of prime agricultural land, the core value underpinning statewide land use planning.

It was good to see county commissioners recognize that and exercise some well-placed caution.

Jeb Bladine can be reached at jbladine@newsregister.com of 503-687-1223.
 

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