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Shining Bright 

Bend has a lot of solar power in its future, but not everyone is happy about it

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Ron Rupprecht isn't thrilled at what he sees 250 feet from his house in east Bend. His property borders a major development with nearly 150 acres of solar panels, now beginning to produce electricity and send power to a Pacific Power substation.

Tucked just off Neff Road, Rupprecht purchased his small acreage in 2000 as exclusive farm use property. Eleven years later, he discovered the poor soil and lack of water made it less than prime farm land. Under new state rules it qualified for alternative, conditional uses, including the development of solar farms – and with it, thousands of visible panels.

"It definitely hurts to see the wilderness out here turned into an industrial complex where you never expected it would be," he says.

The Impact on Property Values

Solar developer Cypress Creek Renewables listened to his concerns and agreed to provide him with a 250-foot buffer which includes a fence, but Rupprecht says he has no idea how the sight of the panels may impact his property value. "There's no way of telling what will happen to property values until you try to sell—whether people will stay away from it because they're afraid of it—or they just don't like the look of it from an upper story bedroom window looking down on the massive field of solar panels."

Rupprecht says it boggles his mind how the new conditional use was allowed. "Ten years after I bought this property they slipped in a clause to change exclusive farm use property to allow solar or wind generating projects without running it by the people that are affected by it—the residents that live around the property."

He doubts this would have ever happened in other areas of Bend. "I'm sure if they would have tried to put this up on the west side there would have been a lot more action and complaints from the residents of the west side than we had out here on the east side, mainly because we're less dense in population out here. I sometimes feel the east side gets treated with a little less respect than the west side," he said.

Cypress Creek Responds

Amy Berg Pickett is NW Zoning and Outreach Manager at Cypress Creek Renewables. The two solar farms that are divided by Neff Road have been underway for about two years. Actual construction didn't begin until August and the solar panels are now coming online and generating electricity.

Cypress Creek Renewables bills itself as "the largest and fastest growing dedicated provider of local solar farms" in the United States. The company builds solar farms ranging from two to 20 megawatts and sells the renewable energy back to local communities at rates less than the cost of fossil fuels.

With a large imprint in North Carolina and 14 other states including Oregon, the company says it generates over 4 gigawatts of energy – enough to power nearly a million homes. The two solar farms adjacent to Neff Road are each capable of 10 megawatts of generation.

click to enlarge Despite some complaints from neighbors, a  field of solar panels east of Bend is up and online. Photo by Brian Jennings.
  • Despite some complaints from neighbors, a field of solar panels east of Bend is up and online. Photo by Brian Jennings.

The Economic Impact

Statewide, the solar industry employs approximately 3,000 people. As the Neff Road projects begin online operation, the site is a beehive of activity. Each farm represents a $20 million investment. Both sites will contribute nearly $4 million in construction dollars, employing more than 200 local construction workers. "The projects are utilizing local businesses for supplies, dining, fuel, printing, catering and rental equipment," says Pickett. Each site will pay Deschutes county $70,000 annually in taxes. The useful life of each solar farm is projected at 30 to 40 years.

Pickett says the only negative trade off of solar energy is the visual impact. "The project is creating renewable energy which is low impact for upwards of 30 years. We're going to be generating enough energy for about 6,000 local homes," she said. She continued, "The visual impact can be mitigated with buffering, fencing and collaborating with neighbors." The two sites will be revegetated with native grasses, juniper and sage. Pickett says solar is allowed on exclusive farm use land as a conditional use. "This land meets those criteria. You have to site a smaller project on high value soils, but this is non-arable land out here. It's not farmable. It's not irrigated. It's not used for agriculture. It's the perfect location," she says.

The State of Oregon has adopted an aggressive energy directive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions patterned after federal goals. Rolled out in 2010, the 2020 goal is to achieve 10 percent less greenhouse gas emission levels than 1990 and 75 percent less by 2050. Solar is one of the options gaining popularity at the commercial and homeowner level.

Central Oregon: Ideal For Solar

With abundant sunshine, Central Oregon offers an ideal location for solar. Besides the two Neff Road developments, a third 10-megawatt facility is proposed by Bear Creek Solar Center LLC on a 90-acre parcel between Highway 20 and Neff Road. A public hearing for that proposal will be held Jan. 31 at the Deschutes Services Center.

Deschutes County has also approved a 96-acre solar farm approximately five miles south of Redmond. Central Oregon Electric Cooperative's solar facility off SE 27th Street near the county landfill was completed in January 2015. COEC operates the largest co-op solar project in Oregon, with an array of 700 panels manufactured in Oregon. Other state solar installations include two in Lakeview—one a larger 45 megawatt facility. Others are planned for Marion County.

Back on Neff Road, Rupprecht says he isn't against solar power but thinks it should be located farther from Bend. But Cypress Creek's Pickett says it needs to be located near available infrastructure, allowing the projects to conveniently feed power into the grid. Responding to critics of the location of the Bend development, Pickett says, "Give us a chance. Reach out and do some research online. Find out what solar really is."

Pickett says there are a lot of misconceptions about solar. "It's new to a lot of people so change is scary. As we get more solar in the ground we'll accept it as we've come to accept big transmission lines and substations as part of our infrastructure." She continued, "Solar is a great opportunity to have renewable energy as part of our system."

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