SALEM — A national solar energy company is betting nearly $1 billion on an Oregon development spree, including five new solar farms in Marion and Polk counties.
Cypress Creek Renewables, a developer that sells electricity to utility companies and already operates seven solar sites in Oregon, is building farms near Salem, Silverton, Gervais, Turner and Grand Ronde. Cypress Creek, which operates in 15 states, has its largest group of farms in North Carolina, where more than 100 are either operating or under construction, company officials say.
The Marion and Polk county farms will cover about 12 acres each, producing enough energy to power some 450 homes. They should be churning out electricity by year’s end or shortly afterward, company officials said.
The farms will sell energy to Portland General Electric, which will send it to its utility ratepayers.
The Willamette Valley’s population density is such “that solar’s needed in this area as part of the renewable energy mix,” said Cypress Creek spokeswoman Amy Berg Pickett. “So it’s good to site solar where the energy is going to be used.”
Company officials say they try their best to hire local workers to build the farms and believe the projects will create “hundreds of good-paying jobs” in Marion and Polk counties.
In 2016, slightly more than 4,500 people worked in solar energy jobs in Oregon, up 50 percent from 2,999 in 2015, according to the Solar Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
Cypress Creek started working in Oregon in 2014. Six farms are generating electricity in Malheur County and one in Deschutes County. At some of those sites, the company took advantage of a taxpayer-fueled effort by state officials to increase renewable energy supplies.
During the 2016 session, Oregon lawmakers approved the formation of a Solar Development Incentive program to stimulate solar energy construction. It works by paying companies half a cent each month for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they produce. Payments expire after five years.
Under the program, Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, plans to pay Cypress Creek $2,035,225 for four of the solar projects in Deschutes and Malheur counties. About $246,000 has already been paid.
Otherwise, the agency isn’t giving the company any loans or incentives, spokesman Nathan Buehler said in an email.
Cypress Creek is also taking advantage of federal solar investment tax credits, which allow the company to deduct 30 percent from the amount it’s invested in a solar project, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
In September, while writing to two U.S. congressmen chairing a subcommittee on energy and power, Cypress Creek Chief Executive Matt McGovern said, “In Oregon we have 17 projects either operational or in construction totaling just shy of $500 million in investment, with another $346 million worth in development.”
The company also is building two new projects in Southern Oregon, as well as two more in other parts of the Willamette Valley.
“We will not be blanketing the state with solar. No solar company will, because there’s no avenue for that,” Berg Pickett said.
At the Cypress Creek farm just outside of Silverton, mid-October clouds blanket the sky — not ideal weather for a solar harvest.
“Typically, solar farms generate energy on all daylight hours, even if there’s some clouds or some snow,” Berg Pickett explained. “The production would just be less.”
Workers are close to finishing the array of about two dozen rows of solar panels compacted onto roughly a dozen acres just outside the Silverton city limits.
There are approximately 9,600 solar panels on the farm.
Construction may have already been underway for two to three months, but these projects can take three years “from the ground up” as they make sure to comply with local, state and federal laws, Berg Pickett said.
The Silverton site should be operating by late December or early 2018. Once construction is complete, the company plans to cover the land with grass or other plants.
In 2017, Oregon lawmakers introduced House Bill 3050 to limit companies’ ability to plant commercial solar farms on high-value farmland, or land that is especially good for growing crops. The bill ultimately died, however.