Keith Chu / The Bulletin

WASHINGTON — As it was conceived in the 1980s, the Over-the-Horizon Backscatter Radar array near Christmas Valley would have been a vital piece in the U.S. defense against the Soviet Union, spotting low-flying cruise missiles invisible to other radar systems.

A technological marvel, the system was said to be so precise, it could see waves breaking in the ocean.

But by the time the radar was complete, in 1990, the USSR was on the verge of collapse. Less than six months after it was activated, the U.S. Air Force mothballed the $275 million transmitter for good.

Now, in a potential swords-to-plowshares makeover, local leaders and federal officials are collaborating to redevelop the Cold War relic into a hub for solar and geothermal energy.

Lake County commissioners, with support from U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, have envisioned converting the site ever since the Air Force announced in 2005 that it would dismantle the radar array. What makes the site a natural for energy development is the massive transmission lines already in place, with the capacity to transmit up to 200 megawatts of energy at a time, said Tom Rasmussen, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management Lakeview area.

“It would be very easy for a company to go in, set something up and ship (power) out,” Rasmussen said.

Protecting the site

When the Air Force announced it would shutter the site for good in 2005, Lake County commissioners thought the buildings and power lines should be protected, said Commissioner Brad Winters.

“Whenever we received notification that the site was going to be decommissioned, basically we sent a letter together to Congressman Walden saying we were interested in keeping the infrastructure there,” Winters said.

The effort has picked up speed since last spring, when Gov. Ted Kulongoski named the site part of the Oregon Solutions program, which brings together federal, state and local officials to broker solutions to economic or community issues.

Therese Hampton, who is leading the project for Oregon Solutions, said she’s speaking regularly with about seven solar and geothermal power producers who have expressed interest in the site. She’s planning a meeting at the site next month for developers to review its potential for renewable energy development.

“From our perspective there just seem to be lots of possibilities,” Hampton said.

The group has already determined the 2,622-acre site can host solar development, based on studies done in the area, Winters said.

“We all know the potential for solar is there,” Winters said.

A solar plant — and the prospect of new jobs in the area — would be welcome, said Christmas Valley Chamber of Commerce board member Judy Lynch.

“If it’s going to be some kind of industry, solar would be fabulous,” said Lynch, who co-owns Forever Christmas Gifts and More, a combination florist, fabric store and gift shop in Christmas Valley. “We don’t have a huge amount of industry out here other than the farming.”

More research needs to be done to determine whether geothermal would be feasible, Rasmussen said. Some research has been done in the region, but not that close to the site.

“There’s some wind data close by, not a lot, there’s also been some geothermal (research), not close by,” he said.

Depending on what developers propose, work on a solar plant could begin even before Air Force control of the area lapses in 2009, Hampton said. That’s when the land reverts back to the Bureau of Land Management control, Rasmussen said. Who would ultimately own that land hasn’t been decided.

The Air Force did not return calls seeking comment.

Renewable energy

If it goes ahead, the project would join several other renewable energy efforts already under way in Central Oregon. Testing for a potential geothermal plant is under way just outside the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Biomass plants are planned for La Pine and Prineville, and an expansion of an existing biomass plant is in the works in Warm Springs.

The Christmas Valley site was one of two Over-the-Horizon Backscatter Radar transmitters in the U.S., and one of the largest radar systems ever built, said David Winkler, a historian who studied the radar in the 1990s.

The Christmas Valley site once sported 216 antennae that varied in height from 35 to 135 feet, according to a 2001 Bulletin story. All of that equipment is gone now, Rasmussen said.

What’s left is several empty buildings and a lot of empty space, which the Oregon Air Guard is interested in using for training exercises and for a radio emitter, according to Rasmussen and Hampton.

The radar got its name from the way its beams bounced off the atmosphere and looked down on potential threats, at a range of up to 1,800 miles. The technology never became obsolete, but its mission did, said Winkler, now director of programs and development at the Naval Historical Foundation.

“Basically the reason they decided to go away is the bad guy went away,” Winkler said.