SALEM — Oregon energy regulators recently got a preview of some controversies likely to arise over regulating multiple solar arrays as one large facility.
The potential regulations will be debated by a “rulemaking advisory committee,” or RAC, that was approved by Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council at its June 29 meeting in Salem, Ore.
When solar projects take up more than 100 acres of farmland or 320 acres of other land, they come under the EFSC’s jurisdiction and are analyzed for noise and environmental impacts, among other factors.
Solar energy on farmland has increasingly become controversial in Oregon as farm and conservation advocates oppose projects they argue will disrupt agricultural productivity.
The RAC will consider whether several solar projects “functionally aggregate” to have the same impact as a larger facility — for example, several arrays in close proximity that are each smaller than 100 acres but together surpass that threshold.
The committee will also decide whether the possibility of such “aggregate” solar facilities would justify new regulations to avoid projects from being broken up into smaller components to avoid EFSC’s current jurisdiction.
One potentially thorny consequence of new rules would be EFSC taking control of projects that would otherwise fall under local government authority.
Counties are more familiar with the local landscape than EFSC officials in Salem and can make decisions more efficiently than that regulatory body, said Don Russell, chairman of Morrow County’s board of commissioners.
“We would be an advocate for having as much of this done at the local level as possible,” he said.
In Central Oregon, there’s a perception that solar projects will get done faster and in a “business-friendly” manner if they don’t fall under EFSC’s jurisdiction, said Betty Roppe, a council member and mayor of Prineville, Ore.
“We want those things to proceed because we desperately need the electricity,” Roppe said.
Another problem raised at the meeting was unfairness to landowners when one solar facility is developed after another — the first project may not come under EFSC’s purview, but the second one on a neighboring property might.
The council was also urged not to discourage the “co-location” of solar projects that can rely on existing transmission facilities, thus preventing the fragmentation of wildlife habitat.
The scope of the RAC’s mission should be narrow and well-defined, said Rikki Seguin, policy director for Renewable Northwest, a nonprofit that supports renewable energy.
Demand for solar energy is rising but the potential for new regulation can create uncertainty in the market, Seguin said. “The industry doesn’t have time for another rulemaking that takes years.”
Due to the controversial nature of the rulemaking, the RAC was proposed to have about 25 members representing a variety of interests.
While some councilors and attendees called for additional representatives to be added, the large number of members raised concerns about the committee becoming unmanageable.
“I can’t imagine getting anything scheduled with this many people,” said Marcy Grail, a council member and employee of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Ultimately, though, the council voted unanimously to approve the formation of the RAC with 25 members, with the understanding that staff from the Oregon Department of Energy may expand or contract its size.