County governments would expand their authority over Oregon’s solar facilities under a recently approved bill that’s expected to speed up the approval process for such projects.
It remains debatable, however, whether a surge in solar arrays on farmland will result from the shift in jurisdiction toward county governments and away from state energy regulators.
“That presumably will allow more development to come in, in a quicker time frame,” said Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group.
Proponents of more solar oversight by counties say local governments will still be held to the same standards for farm and environmental protection when considering project sites.
“I don’t see this as causing an increase in impacts to farmland,” said Nicole Hughes, executive director of the Renewable Northwest nonprofit.
Until now, solar projects fell under the control of the statewide Energy Facility Siting Council, known by the initials EFSC, if they were larger than 100 acres to 320 acres, depending on farmland and soil quality. Below those limits, they’re evaluated by counties.
Under House Bill 2329, which was approved by the full Legislature and awaits a signature from Gov. Kate Brown, those thresholds would rise substantially:
• The adjustment would be smallest for high-value farmland, from 100 acres to 160 acres.
• On predominantly cultivated land and uncultivated land that mostly contains the top four soil classes, the limit would increase more than tenfold from 100 acres to 1,280 acres.
• On any other land, such as lower-quality uncultivated ground, the threshold would go from 320 acres to 1,920 acres.
Supporters of HB 2329 argue that allowing larger solar facilities to be overseen by counties will be more efficient without skipping any of the siting requirements imposed by EFSC.
“Counties have proven to be more nimble,” said Angela Crowley-Koch, executive director of the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association. “They’re generally cheaper and faster than EFSC.”
The statewide council was created with nuclear facilities in mind and must conduct studies related to a project’s vulnerability to earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as its noise output, she said.
“They’re just not relevant for solar projects,” Crowley-Koch said.
Requirements to avoid interfering with wildlife, historical artifacts and agricultural production are pertinent to solar production and those will not change under the new law, she said.
“The same things that are reviewed by EFSC will be reviewed by the county,” said Hughes of Renewable Northwest. “Counties are the most informed about land use issues in their region.”
Solar advocates say there’s unlikely to be an overall increase of solar arrays on sensitive lands because there’s not a lengthy backlog of projects that have yet to be analyzed by EFSC. The number of appropriate sites next to transmission lines is also limited.
“There’s not a ton of space to site these solar projects,” Crowley-Koch said.
However, the 1,000 Friends of Oregon conservation group has qualms about the ability of short-staffed rural counties to conduct robust analyses of complex siting issues.
“They just have less staff than more populous counties or cities,” said McCurdy, the group’s executive director. “It’s a staff and expertise issue.”
The EFSC process has more experience in analyzing the effects of solar facilities on wildlife and the cumulative impact of multiple projects on agriculture, she said.
“We think there will be more solar development,” McCurdy said.
The Oregon Farm Bureau agrees it’s unlikely that projects can be reviewed more swiftly without sacrificing thoroughness and opposes the idea of “jurisdiction shopping” by developers, said Mary Anne Cooper, the group’s vice president of public policy.
Under HB 2329, developers can choose whether to go through the EFSC or county process.
On the bright side, local farmers may be more willing to participate in the county process for solar projects instead of the more confusing EFSC process, she said.
Cooper said she isn’t sure counties will have an incentive to approve solar facilities for economic reasons, since these facilities generally don’t create as many jobs as other developments, such as industrial parks.
“I think those are going to be very different analyses,” she said.
While it’s true that county approvals for solar facilities would take less time than under the EFSC process, that doesn’t take into account legal challenges, said Todd Cornett, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Energy’s siting division.
Decisions made by EFSC can be challenged directly to the Oregon Supreme Court, while county decisions must first go through the Land Use Board of Appeals and the Oregon Court of Appeals, he said.
“If there are appeals, those can go on for a long time,” Cornett said. “There’s no obligation to have the timeline we have at the state level.”