PENDLETON, Ore. — As more wind and solar projects take shape in Eastern Oregon, the Umatilla Basin finds itself caught between interests.
On the one hand, Oregon utilities must provide an increasing amount of energy from renewable sources, and green energy developers are eager to build around the region. Farmers, however, worry about a mess of transmission lines crisscrossing their property to connect to the power grid, cutting over fields and taking valuable land out of production.
The conflict is so great that Gov. Kate Brown established an advisory committee in October 2015 to brainstorm possible solutions. After more than a year of meetings, the committee issued its final report in February, taking stock of local agriculture and energy needs.
Morrow County officials also asked to work with the state Department of Land Conservation and Development on a pilot project that, if successful, would allow multiple renewable energy facilities to combine into a single large transmission corridor — eliminating the veritable spider web of power lines that would be required to connect each individual project.
In a letter dated March 30, Brown expressed support for the project and directed the department to work with Morrow County on crafting temporary rules later this year. Carla McLane, Morrow County planning director, said there are no concrete plans in place, but the advisory committee was critical to lay the groundwork and create goodwill.
“We are at the point where we have this (report), thanks to the governor’s office,” McLane said. “I think the hard work is yet to happen.”
The committee included representatives of farms and utilities, officials from Umatilla, Morrow and Gilliam counties, as well as state Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner. Hansell said he was pleased with how the parties all came together, and said the Morrow County corridor has a lot to offer the region.
“It’s a solution I think we ought to implement,” he said.
The final report recognizes that agriculture remains the primary economic driver in the basin, especially irrigated farms. Without irrigation, dryland wheat typically yields a value of $100 per acre. But add just one acre-foot of water and that value rises to $500 per acre.
At three acre-feet of water, farmers can grow high-value vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and onions at a value of $5,000 per acre. But accessing that water is not easy. Pumping irrigation water from the Columbia River is not profitable to elevations more than 1,000 feet above the McNary and John Day pools, which limits the land base for high-value crops.
That’s why growers say it is so crucial to protect this bank of farmland. Kent Madison, of Madison Ranches in Echo, said transmission lines impede regular farming and irrigation practices, such as aerial spraying of fertilizer and chemicals.
Madison said he supports a single green energy transmission corridor in order to minimize the impact from wind and solar farms on surrounding agricultural land.
“It’s a whole lot better to have this corridor with one big transmission line through it than four small corridors over a 10-mile area, with four or five transmission lines,” he said. “We need to protect the high-value agricultural ground.”
Though McLane said the corridor project is still in its conceptual phase, she imagines it would run along Bombing Range Road connecting wind and solar developments at the south end of the county to electrical substations at the north end.
But there are a number of hurdles to clear first.
The county is still awaiting the final record of decision from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Navy on routing a portion of the Boardman to Hemingway transmission line on the west side of Bombing Range Road — part of the Navy’s Boardman Bombing Range — as opposed to the east side. Stephanie McCurdy, a spokeswoman for B2H developer Idaho Power, said those decisions are expected within a matter of months.
If all goes according to plan, then McLane said it may be possible for the local Umatilla Electric Cooperative to upgrade its transmission system on the other side of Bombing Range Road to accommodate the green energy corridor. She figures it would take a 230-kilovolt line to handle the anticipated capacity of proposed new wind and solar developments.
“We’re not done,” McLane said. “B2H is a big piece of the puzzle.”
UEC is already exploring building the line, which would initially hook up to the new 500-megawatt Wheatridge Wind Energy facility that was issued a site certificate in April. Wheatridge is approved for 292 turbines near Heppner, with a portion of the project extending into southern Umatilla County.
Robert Echenrode, UEC general manager, said one large corridor would be a more strategic effort to plug renewable energy projects onto the grid, as opposed to landowners being inundated with requests for power lines.
“We listened to the landowners in this corridor area, and I believe we were successful in finding common ground,” Echenrode said.
Tamra Mabbott, Umatilla County planning director, said they will be watching Morrow County closely to see if the green corridor model can be a success.
“Certainly, we’re looking for a win-win and that’s what we hope Morrow County will come up with,” Mabbott said.
When the state went all-in on renewable energy, McLane said nobody thought about the consequences for Oregon farms. But a green energy corridor might just be the answer to Morrow County keeping their agricultural base whole.
“For rural counties, (renewable energy) does bring an economic benefit. But how do we protect these other things that are important?” McLane asked. “It would be nice if the local jurisdiction could be the balancing authority for that.”