Solar rules raise potential for controversy

More solar projects would be exempt from mandatory review by Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council under a proposal before lawmakers.

Increasing demand for renewable energy in Oregon has spurred a proposal to exempt most such projects from compulsory review by a statewide siting panel.

Supporters argue it would be less expensive and time-consuming for county governments to review plans for solar arrays and other renewable energy facilities.

However, advocates of farmland preservation argue that counties will scrutinize renewable energy projects less rigorously that the Energy Facility Siting Council, which aims to ensure such facilities meet statewide standards.

Under House Bill 2329, the threshold for mandatory EFSC review of solar facilities would be increased from 100 to 200 acres of arable farmland and certain wind, geothermal and transmission projects would also be exempt from the statewide process.

A proposed amendment to the bill would require county governments to consider the same standards for siting energy facilities as EFSC.

“More renewables are coming to this state and we need to be ready to site them,” said Rikki Seguin, policy director for the Renewable Northwest nonprofit group, during a Feb. 28 legislative hearing.

Oregon’s renewable energy portfolio standard calls for half the state’s power needs to be generated by renewable facilities by 2040. Some local governments, such as the City of Portland and Multnomah County, have even more ambitious goals, she said.

The EFSC review process typically costs more than $1 million to complete, compared to about $50,000 to $80,000 for the county land use process, she said. The statewide process also usually takes a year longer than the county process.

Developers face a “ticking clock” with federal tax incentives to build renewable energy facilities, she said. “This timeline makes it more difficult to justify building projects in Oregon.”

When lawmakers established EFSC in 1975, the process was designed for coal, gas and nuclear plants, while solar and wind projects are more modular and don’t vary as much technologically from site to site, Seguin said.

All solar projects built so far in Oregon, except for one, have been approved through county processes rather than EFSC, so county governments clearly have the expertise to deal with the issue, she said. Those counties that are short-staffed could also recover fees from developers to pay third-party consultants for review.

“We need to recognize our counties are fully capable of siting renewable energy projects at a time our state is demanding them,” Seguin said.

Each county government is unique not only with staffing and resources but also in how it applies statewide land use regulations and the standards it applies beyond the minimum requirements, said Todd Cornett, administrator of the energy facility siting division at the Oregon Department of Energy.

“The bill could result in significant variation in the review and conditions applied to renewable energy projects across the state,” Cornett said during a March 5 hearing on the bill.

The 1,000 Friends of Oregon farmland conservation group is concerned that counties won’t sufficiently examine impacts to water quality and quantity, cultural resources and wildlife habitat, particularly since HB 2329 doesn’t provide them with funding for such undertakings.

“Counties, especially rural counties with low populations and fewer local government resources, lack capacity to address and review the complex siting issues relating to these large projects,” said Meriel Darzen, rural lands attorney for the organization, in submitted testimony.

County land use decisions can be challenged before the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals, which is geared toward county-level decisions rather than questions regarding large-scale energy infrastructure, Darzen said at the March 5 hearing. The EFSC process, meanwhile, aims to resolve broader issues, such as jurisdictional conflicts among government agencies.

“There is a concern about forcing a large project into a small box of county land use,” she said.

The Oregon Farm Bureau likewise argues that EFSC was established to analyze complex energy projects “which may have impacts that cross county lines” while HB 2329 would allow developers to “forum shop” when siting facilities.

“In recent years, the level of solar development on farm and rangeland has exploded, and these projects have the ability to have a significant individual and cumulative impact on our state’s agricultural economy,” said Samantha Bayer, OFB’s associate policy counsel, in submitted testimony. “The siting process for them should remain robust, and not at the mercy of the resources of any particular county.”

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I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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