Facebook spurs 100 megawatts of solar in Prineville

USGS / Submitted photoSolar panels

An agreement between Pacific Power and Facebook that’s propelling construction of 437 megawatts of solar power could be replicated elsewhere in Oregon.

Pacific Power announced the deal Wednesday with a press event in Prineville, home of a Facebook data center and a growing number of solar array development sites. Most of Pacific Power’s new solar capacity will be built in Utah, but two arrays totaling 100 megawatts will be built outside Prineville off George Millican Road. The new arrays in Crook County will boost Oregon’s solar capacity by more than 20 percent, Facebook Energy Strategy Manager Peter Freed said.

Although Pacific Power is buying the solar power, PacifiCorp Senior Vice President Scott Bolton said the power-purchase agreements became possible because Facebook paid enough for renewable energy credits to lower the utility’s up-front costs.

“The 437 megawatts of energy will flow into PacifiCorp’s grid and serve our customers across the West,” Bolton said. “We do believe this is a deal structure that makes a lot of sense for our customers and for future development.”

Renewable energy advocates see the project benefiting the environment and electricity customers. “My immediate reaction is this is an important step,” said Fred Heutte, senior policy associate with the Northwest Energy Coalition. “It’s good for the local economy. It’s good for the ratepayers. It’s good environmentally if you do it properly.”

Pacific Power would not disclose financial details of its agreement with Facebook, but Bolton said the projects won’t require any new construction on transmission lines. That’s an important point, Heutte said, because transmission lines are expensive, and other ratepayers could end up sharing the cost.

The Oregon Public Utility Commission gave Pacific Power the green light in 2017 to make deals like the one with Facebook. “This announcement showcases what can happen when a utility works with its customers and stakeholders to innovate within structures designed to protect all customers,” commission Chair Megan Decker said in an email. The commission will review Pacific Power’s energy purchases associated with Facebook in the utility’s next rate case.

One of the Crook County sites where Chicago-based Invenergy plans to build solar arrays for Pacific Power was permitted in 2015. The other could be announced as soon as Thursday, senior business development manager Laura Miner said.

Together the two sites will create about twice as much solar capacity as the 56-megawatt Gala project, which was built for Apple, also outside Prineville. That site is currently the largest solar array in Oregon.

The amount of electricity that a solar array generates varies by location and the system’s performance. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that in Oregon, one megawatt of solar powers an average of more than 100 homes.

Invenergy hasn’t calculated its Crook County system’s output in terms of residential use because the power will be soaked up by Facebook’s data center, Miner said.

Facebook will be able to claim that its data center is powered by renewable energy, though the solar power will flow to PacifiCorp’s grid, which also draws on coal and other energy sources.

“I think Prineville is a model for small communities around Oregon,” Gov. Kate Brown said as she joined Prineville Mayor Betty Roppe and Crook County Judge Seth Crawford at Pacific Power’s event Wednesday.

She applauded Prineville for attracting Facebook’s first data center eight years ago and now bringing Oregon large amounts of renewable energy.

“Oregonians have a proud tradition of environmental stewardship,” Brown said. “We know that meeting the challenge of climate change and growing our economy are not mutually exclusive goals. Rather they are moral and economic imperatives.”

PacifiCorp has 1.9 million customers in six Western states, including 740,000 in Oregon, Washington and California served by Pacific Power.

Bolton said the Facebook-driven solar projects are the largest the utility has undertaken. They’re expected to be complete by the end of 2020.

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

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