State Legislation On Energy Siting Should Uniformly Allow Local Input

July 24, 2013
Published May 22, 2013 in the LaGrande Observer, while the Oregon Legislature was still in session. Ultimately, both bills referenced here were signed into law without changes.

The Oregon House recently passed two bills related to the siting of solar energy facilities and electric transmission lines. The bills are under consideration by the Senate. These bills are part of a multi-year effort to harmonize agricultural and energy uses of rural lands. However, one of the bills fails to bring crucial local input into the siting process.
In 2011, the state Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD) adopted rules to encourage siting solar facilities on "nonarable" land. Generally, nonarable land is land with poorer quality soils. However, local officials have the ability to designate other lands with higher quality soils as nonarable, based on evidence of past use and their knowledge of local needs and conditions. This "local exception" increases the flexibility of local officials to guide solar projects to sites that minimize conflict with local agriculture.
In Oregon, however, not all energy facilities are permitted at the local level. Current House Bill 2820, if passed, would give the state Energy Facility Siting Council (EFSC) jurisdiction over solar projects on more than 100 acres of arable or more than 320 acres of nonarable land. The bill defines nonarable land using the same soil quality classifications as current DLCD rules, but does not allow for the same "local exception."
This is bad policy for two reasons. First, it creates two different sets of rules – one that applies to local permits for solar projects, and one that applies to EFSC permits for solar projects. But more importantly, HB 2820 denies EFSC the benefit of the particular experience and knowledge that local officials have of local conditions. It may be, for example, that a particular community would be better served by siting a solar project on land with higher-quality soils that is unsuitable for agriculture for other reasons. HB 2820 does not give EFSC access to this information, which decreases its flexibility to account for local conditions in making the siting decision.
Current House Bill 2704 addresses similar issues for transmission lines connecting energy generation facilities to the grid, commonly called "gen-tie" lines. This bill would create a "fast track" for local permitting of gen-tie lines when certain criteria are met that minimize impacts on agricultural land. If the fast-track criteria are not met, then a more rigorous review would apply that includes an analysis of alternative routes.
Part of the fast track would require that the gen-tie line be sited on nonarable land. The existing DLCD rules would apply in defining nonarable land, including the "local exception." Thus, local knowledge and expertise would be applied to a local gen-tie siting decision, but not to an EFSC solar facility siting decision under HB 2820.
The end result if HB 2820 and HB 2704 pass as written is that two different sets of rules will apply to siting energy facilities on rural lands, depending on the type of facility and who is asked to issue the permit. This is confusing, unnecessary and silly. The goal of state policy makers should be to encourage and protect both agriculture and energy development as much as possible. This will happen by increasing siting flexibility, and by relying on those with the most experience and knowledge of local conditions to determine the best sites for each use. Existing DLCD rules and HB 2704 do this. But HB 2820 would not, and this would only increase the potential for poor siting decisions and conflicts between agricultural and energy users. This is not in the best interests of the agriculture or energy industries, our communities or our state's economy.

Article by David Petersen