A farmer behind the state’s first “agrovoltaic” farm says critics cannot stop ‘an idea whose time has come’.

By Alex Baumhardt / oregoncapitalchronicle.com / November 15, 2023

John Langdon and his brother have experimented with all kinds of crops and techniques on their multigenerational farm in Harrisburg in the Willamette Valley.

Nothing has been as controversial as their attempt to add solar panels to 1,100 acres where they currently grow ryegrass.

For more than two years, the brothers – who also grow rice and hazelnuts – have been collaborating with the company Qcells, a subsidiary of South Korean solar company Hanwha Q, to create a proposal for Oregon’s first large-scale commercial “agrovoltaic” project. Agrovoltaics marry solar energy with farming, putting solar panels on land used for animal grazing and crops. The Langdons and Qcells are finalizing a plan for the site, which could include continued cultivation of rye and other crops and sheep grazing.

The project would have to be approved by the state’s Energy Facility Siting Council and the Land Conservation and Development Commission.

But even before finalizing their application, the brothers and the company have run up against criticism from some neighbors and commissioners in Linn County, who say it could harm the area’s agriculture and wildlife and the future of the Willamette Valley. The project is also contending with a 50-year-old land use permitting system with somewhat contradictory rules about how “high-value agricultural land” can be used.

To meet state and federal targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, solar energy has to play a larger role in the nation’s energy economy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But in Oregon, where new farmland is increasingly hard to find and difficult to afford, some farmers fear allowing solar production on land zoned exclusively for farming could lead to even less affordable acreage for crops and livestock.

The agriculture industry occupies more than 40% of all land in the lower 48 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If the country is to transition to at least 40% of electricity via solar by 2035, some of that farmland will have to host solar panels, a 2021 study by the U.S. Department of Energy found.

In Oregon, farms are defined by the state’s land use laws. They designate urban and rural boundaries and specify what areas can be used for industry and agriculture.

Alexis Hammer, a policy coordinator at the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development said the framers of the state’s regulations could not have imagined the modern demand for solar power 50 years ago.

“The system as it stands today does not reflect the state’s goals around climate and clean energy,” Hammer said during a solar energy conference in Portland last week, which was sponsored by the trade group Oregon Solar + Storage Industries Association.

Troy Jones is one of about a dozen Linn County residents opposed to the project who call themselves Friends of Gap Road. He told the Capital Chronicle that Oregon’s Legislature in the 1970s had valid reasons for limiting the use of agricultural lands. He fears if the project is approved, it will set off a wave of solar development in the Willamette Valley.

“Instead of calling Linn County the ‘ryegrass capital of the world,’ we can call it ‘Linn County: the industrial solar facility capital of the world,’” he said.

If approved, the Harrisburg project, called “Muddy Creek,” would be the first of its kind for QCells, which has offices and plants across the globe, including in California and Georgia in the U.S. Brian Tran, development manager for Qcells and conference participant, said typically the company builds solar parks on agricultural land that’s been taken out of production, or on land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Tran anticipates the Muddy Creek project would take nearly two years to receive permits from the Land Conservation and Development Commission and the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council. Construction would begin in 2026, he said, and once online it could provide emissions-free electricity to more than 30,000 homes.

Candid conversation
Langdon and his brother have been guarded about discussing the Muddy Creek project and the proposed 40-year land lease to Qcells, while the facility awaits its permits. But at the solar conference, Langdon spoke candidly with the Capital Chronicle about his desire to add value to his rye acreage by making it a source of clean energy, turn it into a learning experience for college students at Oregon State University and George Fox University and make it a statewide “showcase” of efficient use of agricultural land and clean energy generation.

Langdon said he has been approached at least a dozen times during the last decade by companies interested in putting solar panels on his family’s farm. It intersects with a PacifiCorp transmission line, which would allow the electricity generated from the panels to be sent to an existing substation nearby, where it could then be distributed to customers.

Tran said the site is ideal because there is no need to build new transmission lines or substations.

Langdon and Oregon State University professor Chad Higgins, an agrovoltaics enthusiast, have discussed for years the potential for the project to be a working classroom, Langdon said. Higgins currently runs a 5-acre test farm in Aurora about 20 miles south of Portland where he and students graze sheep and grow beans, tomatoes and other crops below more than 1,000 solar panels. The farm, called the North Willamette Research and Extension Center, is the first study area of its kind in the world, according to Oregon State officials. Dual solar parks and farms are growing fastest in the northeastern U.S., where some states have invested in research and offered tax incentives for projects.

Higgins submitted comment to the Energy Facility Siting Council in support of the Muddy Creek project in advance of a public meeting over the project in Brownsville in July, and Langdon said he wants Higgins’ and Oregon State University’s involvement.

“I want to give him a 100-acre laboratory,” Langdon said.

Langdon said the time is ripe for the project: “You can’t really stop an idea whose time has come.”

Local critics
Critics of the plan, including Roger Nyquist, chair of the Linn County Board of Commissioners, say it’s too early for Oregon to launch a project in such a new industry.

“While there is one farmer in the area who claims he can farm on the property while the solar panels are there, that claim doesn’t pass the straight-face test with most of the agriculture community,” Nyquist wrote in an email.

He added that he and others believe approval would set off a solar frenzy in the Willamette Valley. He said if the state approves the project, “we could be looking at solar panels from Eugene to Wilsonville.”

Nyquist, Jones of Friends of Gap Road and the Audubon Society of Corvallis are also worried about the potential habitat loss for fish and migratory birds that live in the area, including the endangered streaked horned lark.

But primarily, they say land-use rules were meant to keep farm landscapes as they are.

Nyquist said if the farming part of the project fails, then 1,100 acres of land zoned for agriculture would actually be used for industrial energy purposes.

“Taking high-value farmland out of production for what seems to be a use that is more industrial in nature is inconsistent with the spirit of statewide land use laws, which is to protect valuable farmland,” he said.

Decades-old rules
Oregon’s land use laws are enshrined in Senate Bill 100. It passed in 1973, following growing concern about over development from Willamette Valley residents, who did not want to lose their views and valuable farm and timber land to growing suburbs.

It created the Land Conservation and Development Commission to oversee compliance and ensure county land permitting was in line with statewide planning goals. There are 19 goals meant to encompass all of the factors and considerations for both rural and urban development in Oregon, but many conflict with one another.

Oregon, unlike California and Washington, does not have a corresponding environmental protection law to go with land use regulations, Elaine Albrich, a land use lawyer and partner at the Portland office of Davis, Wright, Tremaine, told conference participants. This means that instead of state and local agencies permitting projects based on an evaluation of environmental impacts, the land use commission is forced to decide which of the 19 statewide planning goals in Senate Bill 100 takes precedence on any given project.

“What we’ve seen is real inconsistency with our existing statewide planning goals that were adopted in the 1970s and today’s issues that we’re facing,” Albrich said.

Several pieces of legislation passed this year make citing for agrovoltaic projects easier. One, House Bill 3179, changes permitting so that solar generating projects don’t need state approval unless the site exceeds 3,400 acres on most types of land. House Bill 3409, an omnibus climate package, directs the Land Conservation and Development Commission to adopt rules for citing solar power generation facilities in rural and urban areas.

Langdon said he would expect the first few years farming his ryegrass beneath solar panels to be a bit of an experiment. But, he reiterated, he and his brother have experimented with all kinds of crops and projects on their land, many of which they still harvest today.

“My mission is now to make this an agricultural showcase where people come from far and wide to see what is possible,” he said.

FEATURED IMAGE: In solar grazing farms, sheep and other livestock are able to eat weeds, grasses and plants on the same land that’s used to host solar panels for clean energy generation. (Oregon State University)