Lake County, between Deschutes County and the California border, has long been known for its commitment to developing alternative, renewable energy sources.
Solar power is a big part of that with 27 solar farms either built and generating electricity or in the planning pipeline.
Now another project nearing state approval could triple the county’s solar output and be the biggest in the Northwest.
We walked the proposed site with Laurie Hutchinson of Obsidian Renewables, the Lake Oswego-based company pushing to build the new facility.
If approved and built It would be the biggest solar farm in the state, by far; nearly 10 times the acreage footprint of the current biggest, the Gala project outside Prineville.
“So we have several pieces of property here that we’ve sewed together.” says Hutchinson, “Mostly sagebrush and the low scrubby vegetation that you see. It’s high, it’s dry, there’s a good wind which keeps the solar panels cool and that’s a benefit.”
The 4,000-acre property between Christmas Valley and Fort Rock is not irrigated agricultural land, carries no current water rights and it’s close to high-power transmission lines.
“We’re hoping for 400 megawatts and I can point to the lines we’re going to connect with over there, a set of 500-kilovolt electric lines, pretty big electric lines,” she said. “Which means we have the possibility of serving a lot of customers from this project right here.”
The prospect of a major utility installation going in here is not necessarily popular with nearby landowners who in some cases are farming right across the road from the site.
One group has fought the proposal from the start and continues to raise objections during the State regulatory review process.
None of them, or their attorney, agreed to appear on camera or speak with us about their concerns but they lay out a long list that is available in state documents.
They’re worried about construction dust damaging valuable alfalfa crops, fence lines interfering with deer and elk movement, invasive weeds and rodents migrating off-site, competition for groundwater, nighttime light pollution, damage to local roads and more.
Lake County Commission Chair James Williams, generally a booster of appropriately sited solar projects, understands the local concerns.
“Most people want to be heard, and they want to make sure their concerns are heard and it’s our job to make sure we are listening,” he said.
With state regulators nearing a final decision on the project he believes obsidian is working hard to show they can mitigate the impacts.
“It wouldn’t make sense if they didn’t,” he said. “This is a really big project for them and they really don’t have much of a choice other than to make sure those concerns are mitigated. because there is validity to some of them.”
Hutchinson is not willing to share details on how obsidian plans to address specific issues.
But she points out the company knows the area well, having built several much smaller solar plants in Lake County over the years.
“We’ve come to understand the community much better. It’s an act of listening,” she said. “You definitely have to show up and listen and understand how this can fit into the agriculture and the lifestyle that is here.”
She also won’t say where the power would be sold but says utilities in Washington and California are certainly possibilities, as are large corporate customers like Facebook and Apple.
Construction likely would not begin until sales contracts are nailed down.
The project would be a financial boon for Lake County, which currently receives only a few hundred tax dollars a year from the owners of the proposed site.
Commissioner Williams points out how much more revenue could come in.
“Millions. Millions. A couple million a year,” he said.
Williams hopes the project will be approved by the end of this year.
State regulators are on schedule to make a decision in December.