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Solar developer's local investment nears $40 million for two 80-acre solar farms.

HOLLY M. GILL - Work has begun on two solar farms near Madras: one project off North Adams Drive, and another west of Dry Canyon, off Belmont Lane.More than three years after they were first envisioned, solar farms are under construction on two 80-acre plots — west and north of Madras.

The developer and owner of the projects, GCL New Energy, based in San Ramon, California, anticipates that the total cost for the two solar farms and the upgrades to transmission lines will approach a $40 million investment, by the time the projects are complete.

HOLLY M. GILL - The Elbe Solar Center will feature 80 acres of solar arrays, on the northeast corner of Belmont Lane and Elbe Drive, west of Madras.The contractor, Swinerton Builders, of San Diego, is working on the two projects — Elbe Solar Center, on the northeast corner of Belmont Lane and Elbe Drive, and Adams Solar Center, on the east side of North Adams Drive — which are expected to be operational by the end of May.

"The projects will use about 40,000 solar panels each, which will be installed on arrays that track the sun east to west during the day," said Mac Moore, vice president of business development for GCL New Energy. "The peak power output will be 10 megawatts each, and each project is expected to generate 23,000,000 kilowatt-hours per year."

"A home in Oregon uses about 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year, so each of these projects will produce the equivalent of the electricity use of about 1,900 Oregon homes," said Moore, adding that the electricity will be sold under contract to PacifiCorp.

Each of the projects will cost about $18.5 million, with another $1.5 million to $2.5 million spent on upgrades to transmission lines, he noted.

"The projects have paid PacifiCorp for the upgrades to their system to accommodate the new generation and the upgrades are complete," said Moore.

In operation since 2009, GCL acquired the projects along with two others last year from the original developer, Coronal Development Services. The company's other two projects are located outside of Bend, and near the town of Bly in south central Oregon. GCL has also developed and currently operates solar projects in California and North Carolina.

The path to getting the projects approved and underway has not always been smooth. Janet Brown, the Jefferson County director for Economic Development for Central Oregon, has been working on the project since July 2014, when she received a phone call from HelioSage Energy about the potential project.

When she met with the company's director of project management, "The company had already negotiated land leases with two local property owners for large solar arrays on Elbe and Adams," Brown recalled.

Adams Solar Center is on property leased from Binder LLC, and Elbe Solar Center, from Dry Canyon Farms.

As the enterprise zone manager for the county, Brown helped guide the company through the application for an Oregon Rural Renewable Energy Zone, and informed them of the requirements. Shortly after the county passed resolutions necessary for five-year enterprise zones for the projects, Coronal-Panosonic purchased HelioSage in February 2015.

In April 2015, the property owners and Brown testified in support of the projects before three members of the Jefferson County Planning Commission, who were uncertain of the state definition of arable lands and soil.

Fearing a no vote, Brown said that she asked for a break in order to contact Jon Jinnings, community services specialist for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, for clarification.

"Thankfully, Jon answered my call and sent me an email clarifying land-use rules, which I entered into the record, and all three planning commissioners voted to approve both solar projects," she said.

"Adding 20 megawatts of power to our transmission grid is huge," said Brown, noting that the community has been supportive of the projects.

"The top question people ask me is regarding reflection off the solar panels," she said. "I explain that the purpose of the solar panels is to absorb the maximum amount of solar energy, not reflect sunlight and energy."

"Jefferson County has been very helpful during the process to obtain use and construction permits," said Moore, praising Brown as a "key supporter."

When the projects are up and running, they will be maintained by a division of Swinerton called SOLV, which has an office in Bend, he said. "This would include mowing under the arrays if needed. We are responsible for noxious weed control under a plan that was approved by the county."

Moore is looking forward to the completion of the two projects. "It is a substantial up-front investment," he said, "but the systems are designed to last 30-plus years, operating costs are low, and sunshine is free."

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