By editorial board • 

County, state, country must find way to accommodate solar

Fifteen years ago, renewable energy filled less than 8 percent of U.S. demand, with hydropower accounting for more than three-quarters. The most recent figures show renewable filling almost 15 percent, with hydropower accounting for less than half.

Hydro is a mature source, thus not waxing or waning appreciably. But the contributions of solar and wind, both negligible 15 years ago, have been soaring.
In fact, wind is on the verge of overtaking hydro as America’s greatest source of renewable power, if it hasn’t already. It takes time to conduct accurate numerical assessments, so the jury remains out at the moment 

A recent study conducted by the federal Department of Energy projects renewable meeting 80 percent of U.S. power needs by 2050. Critics complain that’s overly conservative. The projection is based on a continuing surge in solar and wind generation, with the contribution of other renewables — hydro, geothermal, biofuel, biomass — remaining essentially unchanged.

But like every major shift in the American supply chain, regardless of the commodity, this one entails tradeoffs. And we must be prepared to make them on a reasonable and rational basis, after taking all stakeholders into account.

Locally, one such tradeoff is currently being forged by the Yamhill County Planning Commission and its parent Yamhill County Board of Commissioners. It’s the tradeoff between allocating agriculturally zoned land to power production instead of crop production — in this case, in the form of 12-acre solar arrays, which have been proliferating of late in the Willamette Valley.

There are other arguments — including glare, traffic, noise, heat, distraction, emission, bird kill and unsightliness — but they pale to the point of insignificance by comparison. This boils down to a land-use issue, pure and simple.

It would be easy to suggest solar purveyors simply seek sites on Oregon’s dry side, where the land is less fertile, cloud cover less frequent and opposition less prevalent. But sites in remote corners of Oregon’s eastern desert are more costly to develop, service and maintain, and access to the West Coast power grid is a lot harder to come by. The economics and logistics are more attractive around these parts and, like it or not, they play an essential role in the equation.

Continued reliance on coal, oil, gas and uranium to fuel American power production is sheer folly. And we have already fallen well behind some of our global competitors, including China, in making the transition.

It is incumbent on Oregon, already the nation’s fourth largest producer of renewable power after Washington, California and Texas, to find ways to accommodate the leading alternatives. Instead of state action, it is incumbent on Yamhill County by default.

The state and county have already mapped productive agricultural soils on the basis of fertility, Class I being the most fertile and Class IV the least. It seems to us allowing the solar industry access to soils classified as unproductive or only marginally productive (Class IV) would represent a reasonable compromise between two equally compelling demands — food production and power production.
 

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