Lake County is building a reputation as the Oregon’s solar power capital. Major projects already approved and in the planning pipeline could bring big changes to the town of Christmas Valley as hundreds of workers flood the area to build those solar farms.
That growth is welcomed by some and dreaded by others. The overall impact on infrastructure and daily life is hard to predict.
Plenty of sunshine and a few high transmission power lines in northern Lake County adds to boom times for Christmas Valley’s 1,100 residents.
One of those is Sam Davis, owner of the expanding Valley View RV Park.
“When I get this done next week this will give me 37 spaces right here,” said Sam.
He’s counting on a flood of construction workers coming in.
“I‘ve started with an RV park here but it’s really a ‘man-camp,'” said Sam. “It’s really designed to be a ‘man-camp’ for workers.”
And counting on them to pay high monthly rates.
“I’ve been thinking, $700 to $800 and it may go up. It just depends on the pressure,” said Sam.
Pressure brought on by two major solar projects in particular:
The Obsidian Solar Center near Fort Rock, which is fully approved with construction imminent.
The Archway project east of town, which is still in the regulatory pipeline.
Each has a footprint of a little less than 4,000 acres and a peak capacity of 400 megawatts — among the biggest solar facilities in the country in acreage and output.
Chicago-based Invenergy is behind the Archway project. Vice president Laura Miner drives us into the site, which checks a lot of the important boxes for a major solar development.
“Access to transmission, willing landowners, flat buildable area and then fewest resource conflicts — that there’s not high value (agriculture) going on, that there’s not a big recreational area,” said Miner.
Nothing happens fast in this business.
“They’re not going up every day, it takes many years,” said Miner.
Planning for this project started in 2018. State approval — if it happens — and that first delivered megawatt are still a long way off.
“We hope to finish permitting by the end of 2023, the end of next year and start construction early 2024 and be on line the end of 2025,” said Miner.
Again, nothing happens fast. The Obsidian site across down proves that. In the last year, Obsidian has done plenty of survey and prep work out at this property. But they had hoped this would be a much, much busier place by now. The lead developer now says it could be mid-2023 before serious construction begins.
However fast it happens, it’s clear Christmas Valley will see some changes. More people. More money. Less quiet living.
At the town’s only gas station, Billy tells us he doesn’t like what’s coming.
“It’s going to change it,” said Billy. “Probably worse.”
But Rachelle Markling says, bring it on.
“Having those solar farms is more people, more population. The stores will sell more stuff. Economically, it’s just a great idea,” said Rachelle.
A few blocks away at the Ranch Hand Bar and Grill, Woody Trumble sides with Rachelle.
“I mean it’s just dead land. so we might as well just go green,” said Woody.
“There’s a lot of people that protest it. But it’s going to happen, either here or somewhere else,” said bar co-owner Michael Passmore. “The small community is going to explode. We know that. Bend has grown. La Pine has grown. It’s pushing this way.”
“It’s about as ideal a location as you could have for a solar farm. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s not in anybody’s back yard,” said Farm Bureau Representative Andrew Miles.
He sees the positives, but is worried about construction traffic impact on roads.
“Literally tons and tons and tons of material and trucks that are going to be bringing that material out here,” said Andrew. “And so for a very short period of time, they will have a lot of use on our roads and it’s just important to us, farmers and ranchers, that our roads are maintained because that’s how we make a living by getting our crop out of here.”
And then there’s water — in an area where, Miles says, new water rights haven’t been granted since the 1980’s.
“If the state water resources department granted them water rights of some nature — industrial, commercial, whatever you want to call it — in addition to whatever is already being pumped from this valley? The locals would be shocked and very upset,” said Andrew.
Back at the RV park, Sam Davis hopes his newly planted play and picnic area, the recently built laundry facility and shower room complete with pool table, will bring the workers in whenever they come to town.
“I kind of expected to be full this fall. And then they set it back to April 1,” said Sam.
Thats the Obsidian project. Construction start date: still uncertain.
And with Archway still early in the state approval process, the expected boom times in this town might not be as predictable as the sun rising every morning.