Pasture or power? Solar talk on San Juan Island - Salish Current
April 8, 2024
Pasture or power? Solar talk on San Juan Island
Nancy DeVaux

Public comment is being accepted until April 24 on OPALCO’s proposal for a solar array installation  in San Juan Valley. Among issues are whether the installation can be considered agricultural, whether there is sufficient visual screening and whether the project can be permitted under existing county codes. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

April 8, 2024
Pasture or power? Solar talk on San Juan Island
Nancy DeVaux

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Many people in San Juan Valley on San Juan Island say they are in favor of a community solar power project — but … “not here,” they say. 

A 19-acre parcel at the corner of Douglas and Bailer Hill Roads in the southwest corner of San Juan Valley is both a highly valued open space resource and where Orcas Power and Light Company (OPALCO) seeks to locate a 2.7 MW solar array of 600 panels and a 1 MW battery storage facility. 

Former county council member Darcie Nielsen, who served from 1997 through 2004, is urging OPALCO to look elsewhere to install the project, 

“I can say with certainty,” she wrote, “that everyone engaged in the [Open Space Planning] process at that time [1991] never anticipated the prospect of vast solar arrays blanketing and darkening agricultural lands in San Juan Valley or any of the significant agricultural areas in the islands!”

Different times

“Business as usual is no longer available,” OPALCO General Manager Foster Hildreth told 72 participants in a Zoom public information meeting on March 26.

In 1991, the energy outlook was very different, before climate change was understood, so solar arrays were not specifically addressed. 

OPALCO purchases electricity from mainland sources where increased electricity demand and hydroelectric generating shortfalls will lead to a 25 GW shortfall and rolling blackouts by 2030. Local power sources such as solar arrays and battery storage, it says, are needed to supplement the utility’s need for power.

Still agricultural

As to why the pasture location was chosen, Operations and Engineering Manager Russell Guerry explained on March 26 that the location is easily accessible for utility connection; the land designation as Agriculture allows for permitting; the site is relatively close to critical services such as the airport, fire station and hospital which could be supplied power during emergencies; and it was one of few parcels available for purchase.

Sheep aren’t “just window dressing” in a proposal for a solar array installation in San Juan Valley. Backers say the installation could include a number of improvements that could be used by market garden or other agricultural enterprises along with grazing. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

OPALCO has partnered with a neighboring sheep farmer to graze the Bailer Hill property. Adam Green and Sarah Pope, owners of Oak Knoll Farm, have used the property for grazing the site for several years and will continue to do so after the panels are installed.

A farm plan was developed in partnership with the San Juan County Conservation District describing the best practices OPALCO plans to follow to improve soil health over the 25-year project.

“Sheep aren’t just window dressing,” Green wrote on FaceBook. “OPALCO has put up significant resources to make it compatible with AG, including raising the height of the panels (requiring deeper pillars and more steel), deer fencing, livestock fencing, activating the well and providing potable water, 120v AC power on site for things like fence energizers, and funding for soil amendments..” 

Green said the improvements are not exclusive to grazing but can be used by market garden or other agricultural enterprises. 

OPALCO stresses that use of this land for solar does not preclude future agricultural uses, and that this has a project life of 25 years. 

Land misuse?

San Juan Island sculptor Royce Meyerott is an active opponent of the project. He wrote a letter of opposition that was hand-delivered to the 80 residences at The Oaks, a manufactured home community across the road from the proposed site. [Disclosure: The author is a resident in The Oaks.]

On two recent Saturdays Meyerott hosted gatherings of interested people at the corner of Bailer and Douglas Roads to discuss the proposal. He wrote on his website, “The issue here is land use, or more succinctly, the misuse of land as designated by our county. In this case, using agriculture land for anything other than agriculture.”

Neighbors have also expressed dismay over the planned removal of several big snags on the property that have been used by eagles and other birds as perching sites.

Nielsen stresses inconsistency with existing plans, saying, “The proposed solar microgrid project is totally inconsistent with years of citizen-driven efforts to protect the historic San Juan Valley farm lands, open space, pastoral landscapes, and significant view corridors that were painstakingly defined in the 1991 Open Space and Conservation Plan.”

The open space plan, she said, recognizes and protects “visual open space resources as equal in importance to maintaining traditional agricultural uses in this location.” 

The objectives for conserving pastoral landscapes include keeping the land in agricultural use, “especially where there are agricultural soils”, and “maintaining the appearance of open pasture by locating permitted, nonagricultural development out of public view or by screening it from view.”

Housing or solar?

Nielsen said the San Juan Valley Heritage Plan was developed in 2002 as an additional layer of protection. The heritage plan primarily offers San Juan Valley property owners a density bonus of increased residential development in exchange for the conservation of open space. Nielsen pointed out that under the heritage plan, four homes could be built on the property, which currently is designated for one home per 10 acres, if 75% were in open space or agriculture.

Some see the question of whether to allow the solar array installation — or even housing — on what is designated agricultural land is an issue of land “misuse” rather than land use. (Nancy DeVaux / Salish Current © 2024)

Not everyone likes that idea either, and several people said on Facebook, they’d rather see the solar panels than more housing.

Lisa Lawrence commented, “Change is always hard, and the SJI rumor mill is explosive and often lacking honest information. … I’m looking forward to the island and OPALCO getting creative and resourceful as electricity is getting pretty expensive!”

Teddy Dean commented, “Solar is the future and I will do all I can to support it. We have 26 panels and get great satisfaction monitoring their output. Climate change is upon us, without changing our thinking to accommodate sustainable solutions, we’re toast.”

Elliot Burch commented, “For me, I feel as if we are trapped in a burning building and the firefighters outside are debating which windows to smash in order to get the fire hoses inside. Or sometimes I imagine we are on a sinking ship and we can’t agree on which of the many bilge pumps we should use. If we could only take the high-altitude view we might all eventually agree that we need to smash all the windows and operate all the bilge pumps.”

The public can comment on the project until April 24 when the county’s hearing examiner will decide if the solar array can be considered agricultural, whether there is sufficient visual screening, and whether the project can be permitted under existing county codes.

— By Nancy DeVaux

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