Oregon's largest solar array under construction
By Lee van der Voo
Sustainable Business Oregon contributing writer
Tigard-based Obsidian Finance has begun construction on its Outback solar project in Lake County. At 5-megawatts of production capacity, Outback will be Oregon's largest solar array.
The state’s largest solar array is under construction in Lake County, slated for completion this fall. The 5-megawatt, 16-acre solar array — known as Outback — is being developed by Obsidian Finance Group and Smart Energy Capital, and comes at a time when other utility-scale solar projects are stalling in Oregon.
The project was helped to fruition by $15 million in tax incentives through combined awards from Oregon’s former Business Energy Tax Credit program and the Energy Trust of Oregon.
Todd Gregory, assistant vice president of Tigard-based Obsidian said that persistence has also been a primary driver.
Outback has been four years in the making. It began with Gregory scouting southern Oregon land, armed with information on power lines, then probing transmission possibilities and working with utilities and local stakeholders. The project has since cleared numerous hurdles, including a challenge at the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.
Obsidian declined to provide the cost of the project.
Smart Energy Capital, a solar energy project developer with an office in Portland, arranged the financing for Outback, overseeing design and construction, negotiating transmission rights and a power purchase agreement with Portland General Electric, and finalizing incentive agreements.
Smart Energy’s Mike Grenier said the company – in business since 2009 and exclusively focused on solar development – is extremely proud of the project, which in some ways is the first of its kind.
“In terms of the gold standard, it’s really operating like any other power plant out there and meeting the same standards and requirements,” said Grenier, balancing power between PGE and the federal Bonneville Power Administration, a feat uncommon in solar and more like other types of power plants. “There’s somebody who is watching the project sunup to sundown every day of the year and scheduling power based on the weather forecast for every hour that the plant is operational.”
He said the project has benefitted from a supportive and collaborative working relationship with Bonneville.
Outback’s construction is expected to generate 40 to 50 short-term jobs at its peak, with around 80 percent of those jobs going to Oregonians. Belectric, a German company with a U.S. headquarters in the Bay Area and one of the largest solar engineering and construction contractors in the world, is overseeing construction.
Outback is located 9 miles east of Christmas Valley and consists of 23,000 solar modules.
“It will be twice as large as the next largest facility in Oregon,” Gregory said.
That next-largest project is about 120 miles away, where Obsidian Finance developed Black Cap, a 2-megawatt array for Portland-based electric utility PacifiCorp, which is expected to transfer ownership in October.
Though large for an Oregon development, Outback — which could power as many as 5,000 average homes — is a fraction of the size of the solar arrays being developed between 10 and 50 megawatts in other parts of the United States.
Its construction comes at a time when utility scale solar development has slowed in Oregon, owing to a number of factors. Oregon utilities have mostly met their state-mandated targets for renewable energy generation, curbing the need for design-build projects like Black Cap. General economic woes have also lowered power consumption. And the higher cost of solar power in the Pacific Northwest — it’s almost double the cost of hydropower at the 500-kilowatt scale — has combined with substantial up-front costs to transmit power and plan such developments to make utility-scale solar prohibitively expensive.
While few projects move forward in Oregon, the diving cost of solar panels amid competition from China (about 40 or 50 percent cheaper today than in 2009) is helping solar find it’s sweet spot elsewhere.
“The prices have come down so much that it is getting to be where, not necessarily in Oregon but in other places, renewable energy like solar and wind are on par with some other fossil fuels,” said Gregory, pointing to Southern California in particular, where customers typically pay more than 30 cents per kilowatt hour for power.
Experts do anticipate that Oregon’s solar market will eventually turn. Gregory said Obsidian will remain focused on being the largest developer of utility-scale solar in Oregon, and seizing on unique opportunities here, like Outback.
“We’ve been working on this project for about 4 years," he said. "We’re very excited to get it done."
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