Dakota Bigos


Driving down Highway 97, it is hard to miss the array of solar panels that line an otherwise empty field. The Tumbleweed project, which was built by Saturn Power Corp. of Ontario, Canada, is located on 87 acres and produces enough solar energy to power around 1,500 homes.

It is likely not the last solar energy facility to appear around Central Oregon in the near future. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., recently announced the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) will loan up to $48.2 million for funding solar energy facilities in Deschutes, Klamath, Lake and Clackamas counties, with $7 million of that to help with the Redmond-area facility’s $21 million cost.

Merkley is an open proponent of renewable energy. Last year, Merkley supported the “100 by 50 Act,” which introduced legislation for the U.S. to use 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

“Unlike burning coal or natural gas, solar energy doesn’t have air pollution particulates in it,” Merkley said in a recent conference call with reporters. “It is a low-cost source of energy that is cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels quite effectively.”

According to Merkley, the REAP loans will benefit local economies in Oregon. “This creates jobs in rural America, so it’s a win on every level,” Merkley says.

Last month, President Donald Trump approved tariffs on imported solar equipment. These tariffs begin at 30 percent and decrease to 15 percent over a three-year period.

“I personally would have provided subsidy to U.S. production rather than a tariff on foreign production,” Merkley says.

According to Merkley, the current trend of solar equipment decreasing in price is likely to have a positive impact on the growing solar industry.

“The cost of panels in general has been dropping so quickly,” Merkley says. “If it continues on that course we will still have low-cost panels.”

Merkley is hopeful that the move toward solar energy will continue to expand in Oregon.

“I want to see the U.S. focused on renewable energy so our economy will reap the benefits of driving clean energy,” Merkley says.

Since its completion, the 9.9-megawatt Tumbleweed site in Redmond has been supplying renewable energy to PacificCorp, parent company of Pacific Power. According to information released by Merkley’s office, the 25-year REAP loans will allot $7 million toward funding the Tumbleweed facility. Saturn Power representatives say they are currently in the process of selling this facility to a confidential buyer but declined to provide further detail.

A spokesman for Pacific Power, whose parent company has a 20-year power purchasing agreement with the facility, said Tumbleweed will be operated by North Carolina-based Heelstone Energy.

Justin Gravatt, finance director for Heelstone Energy, who is listed as the Deschutes County contact for the REAP loan in the USDA’s project announcement sheet, could not be reached for comment.

Larry Henry, project manager at Tumbleweed, did offer insight into the development process of Tumbleweed and benefits of solar energy facilities in Oregon.

“The 300 days of sun a year on average makes Central Oregon very desirable (for solar energy facilities),” says Henry.

Most solar energy projects on the east side of the Cascades are 10-megawatt sites, whereas Western Oregon generally has 3-megawatt sites, Henry said. Some land use policies prevent solar energy companies from establishing solar panels in areas that could be used for farming. At Oregon State University, students have been optimizing land use at their solar sites by grazing sheep alongside solar panels.

The push toward renewable energy in Oregon is contributing to the establishment of more solar facilities.

“In Oregon the state legislature has set a goal for 25-percent green energy by 2025 and that’s part of what’s driving these solar sites,” Henry says.

Saturn Power’s current solar energy projects in Oregon include the Chiloquin project in Klamath County.

“We’re excited. There appears to be opportunity going forward for more solar in Oregon,” Henry says. “We hope to be developing and building additional sites here.”

— Reporter: 541-548-2185, dbigos@redmondspokesman.com