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Growing solar farms: Panels spinning sunshine into gold for the Jefferson County tax base

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - The solar farm on North Adams, above, was the second solar farm built in the county, following one on Belmont Lane west of Madras. More solar farms are currently in the works. Energy of Utah plans to build two farms in the Culver area, investing $70 million. County officials tout the farms' contribution to tax revenues, especially compared with the bare, unwatered farm ground upon which they are often built.

Twenty-nine years ago, Ralph Lewis bought 55 acres near Culver. Seventeen acres are farmable, the rest is dry land pasture where he runs a couple of horses and a couple of his neighbor's cows.

"The ground was pretty much useless as far as any revenue," says Lewis.

Then Lewis got a brochure in the mail from Sulus Solar suggesting he put a solar farm on his land.

"So I thought if I could get some revenue off it, it would be to my benefit," says Lewis.

Some neighbors expressed concerns about the panels ruining their view, but most were fine with the change. Lewis signed a contract to lease 17 acres to Sulus. If the project passes all the biologic, geologic, hydraulic and ecologic standards, Sulus will begin construction mid-2022.

"It's very worth it to me, yeah!" says Lewis, who expects to be around to collect rent for the full 20-years of the agreement. "Sure! Only the good die young, and I'm not good, so …" Lewis says with a hearty, lingering laugh.

Conor Grogan, part owner of Sulus Solar, says Lewis' property has what it takes for a solar farm: It's relatively flat, it's not good for farming, it's not shaded, and it's near a robust grid to deliver the energy to customers.

"I saw the trend in renewables worldwide," says Grogan, who moved from Ireland to Oregon because the state has an aggressive goal, to generate half of the state's power from renewable resources by the year 2040. Grogan saw the opportunity. "I don't pretend to be a green hippie, but I do think that money does talk in a lot of industries and renewables for sure."

These projects involve complex financing, and Grogan says he enjoys the various people he pulls together: farmers, investors and planners. Grogan and his investors make money, and so does the community.

Revenue increases exponentially for Jefferson County when farmers like Lewis put solar farms on otherwise unfarmable land.

County Administrator Jeff Rasmussen uses a proposed solar farm on Elk Drive as an example.

"The current two properties on Elk Drive as an example.

"The current two properties paid a combined total property tax of $382.19," says Rasmussen. "If the solar farm is developed and if county commissioners agree to a $7,000 per megawatt fee in lieu of property tax, the revenue would be $441,000 per year. Over 20 years, that is $8.8 million."

Rasmussen compares that to revenue from the 153-home Willowbrook subdivision going in on the north side of Madras. "If each home paid $2,500 each year, that would be $382,500," says Rasmussen. "The difference in the level of services needed between these two examples from schools, police, fire, roads, water, sewer, library and parks is night and day."

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - A solar farm is planned for this location along Green Drive in the Culver area. Sulus Solar proposed the solar farm here. Energy of Utah proposes two more, much larger solar farms near Culver.

Perfect area for solar

"East of the Cascades in Oregon is attractive because the solar performance is much greater than the west side of the Cascades," says Rocco Vrba, president of Energy of Utah. His company expects to build two solar farms near Culver. Vrba says Jefferson County should expect to see more solar farms, not just because of the area's "solar performance."

"Jefferson County has been absolutely stellar to work with. They're open minded, they ask a lot of good questions."

Energy of Utah will spend $70 million building the two Culver-area projects. Jefferson County Community Development Director Phil Stenbeck says much of that money goes into the pockets of the people who live in the area. "The developers typically work with local contractors," says Stenbeck. "They use concrete and metal and solar panels that need to be shipped in, so trucking plays into the job creation."

"The trend for solar projects is only going up," says Grogan. "We expect worldwide for solar to generate 50% of our power generation by 2050."

Grogan has been in Oregon since 2016. New programs that encourage investments in solar brought him east of the mountains to Jefferson County for the first time, specifically the Community Solar program.

"It has made projects in the Pacific Power area work from an economic point of view for the first time within the last year or so," says Grogan.

With the Community Solar program, utilities pay more for solar energy than for power from non-renewable sources. Also, people who subscribe to solar power get discounts on their utility bill.

"It's a way of people feeling as if the project benefits them even if it's not going on their property," says Grogan. "People can point to and say I'm getting my electricity from that project and benefiting from it because I'm getting a discount on my bill."

Besides the projects Sulus Solar and Energy of Utah have proposed, Ecoplexus is proposing a project on Elk Drive on the same property as an existing solar farm.

Subsidies and tax credits promote solar construction for now, but those supports will phase out over time, says Rob Del Mar, policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Energy.

"In some cases, the output from these solar farms is being sold for a lower cost than natural gas and that's without any state subsidies," Del Mar says of some Idaho projects. "Although there's still a federal tax credit."

Del Mar says solar farms give the community a more resilient power grid.

"In the future, we're going to see more and more of these projects combined with battery storage," says Del Mar, "which could potentially provide back-up power during natural disasters or other emergencies."

People may argue over how the solar panels look. "They're safe and secure and they're certainly a lot more healthy for people than the fossil fuel alternatives," says Del Mar.

As for the county, says Stenbeck, "At the end of the day, they put unused land to a useful purpose and produce revenue we wouldn't have otherwise."


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