Crops need sun. Solar panels need sun. One would think there is enough sunshine, even in rainy Oregon, for everyone. But at the urging of some strict farmland preservationists, the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission recently adopted permanent rules that put some farmland off limits to solar developers in the state. The new rules, originally adopted in January on a temporary basis, ban solar energy facilities from soils classified as Class I, Class II, prime or unique. Those are typically the most agriculturally productive soils in the state.
From 2011 through January, Commission rules allowed solar development on high-value farmland up to 12 acres, which is enough land to support about a 2 megawatt facility. In 2011, a 2 MW facility was huge, but today 2 MW is tiny and new projects need to generate more power to be financially feasible. Also, most projects in Oregon have so far been built in sunnier central and eastern Oregon, where prime farmland can more easily be avoided. But falling costs and proximity to transmission has recently made the west side of the Cascades more attractive.
In opposing the new rules, the solar industry argued that opponents dramatically overstate the impact of solar on high value farmland. The new rules apply statewide, but the clear impetus was perceived threats to high-value farmlands in Clackamas, Yamhill, and Marion Counties. The solar industry pointed out that the impacts from solar in those counties was minimal, with only 0.23% of the high-value farmland in Clackamas County, and less in Yamhill and Marion, actually impacted by solar projects.
Industry advocates also pointed to solar projects that maintain agricultural values of the land underneath and around the panels, such as planting native grasses and bee-friendly plants. The grasses improve water quality, and the bees produce honey and serve as pollinators. Farmland advocates weren't buying it, despite efforts to sound friendly to both renewable energy and bees.
While the new rules seem to favor a strict interpretation of what constitutes farm use and a victory for farmland preservationists, some farmland advocates also came away unhappy. Groups like Friends of Yamhill County complain that the new rules didn't go far enough to protect other valuable soils that might not meet certain scientific criteria for "high-value" soil, but still support high-value crops like hazelnuts and grapes. But other groups like Solar Oregon and many of its winery supporters recognize that both uses can and should be able to exist in harmony.
They say the best compromise is when nobody comes away happy, and perhaps that is what happened here. But I suspect that the most vociferous supporters of protection of farmland from sprawl, and the most passionate advocates of a clean energy future, are pretty much the same people. If so, there is likely still room to find solutions that further both of these important state policies, both of which make Oregon such a great place to live.