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County OKs solar farm

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners approved a large-scale solar farm Wednesday that will have 45,000 panels spread over 46 acres on rural land between Medford and White City.

"It's a new field in Jackson County. You'll be the first," Commissioner Doug Breidenthal said to the team of professionals who came to a public hearing to describe the proposal by California-based Cypress Creek Renewables.

"This is the first of several projects likely to come before the board of commissioners," Breidenthal said.

Construction could begin as early as this year, but is more likely to start in 2017, the team said.

Pacific Power has committed to buying electricity produced by the solar farm, which will produce enough electricity for 2,000 homes, said Jason Carr, director of community relations for Cypress Creek Renewables.

"I think the cool thing about this project is that the power that is produced at this facility will stay locally here in Jackson County, providing clean and inexpensive renewable energy to the citizens and businesses that live here," Carr said.

The panels will be tilted toward the southern sky, and energy produced will feed into the local electricity grid, said Jeffrey Webber, an engineer for the project.

The panels are built to withstand extreme weather, including hail with the power of a golf ball moving at 100 mph. They have a 40-year energy production lifespan, he said.

When the Cypress Creek Renewables team reached out to neighbors of the solar farm planned at 5842 McLoughlin Drive, some expressed concerns about the aesthetic impact of the solar panels and possible negative effects on property values, Carr said.

A local appraiser hired by Cypress Creek Renewables said research has shown solar farms do not cause neighboring property values to fall.

The solar farm will be screened with a masonry wall on the side that borders rural homes, and with chain-link fencing on the rest of the perimeter. Drought-resistant shrubs and trees will be planted to conceal the wall and fence, the team said.

No neighbors came to speak out against the project during the commissioners' Wednesday public hearing.

Carr said he hoped the company's outreach and modifications to the project in response to aesthetic concerns had alleviated neighbors' worries.

Construction of the project will create local jobs. After the construction phase, the landscaping, panels and other equipment will be maintained, but that work will not produce substantial long-term local employment, said Damien Hall, attorney for the project.

The cost of similar-sized solar farms is about $15 million to $20 million, according to Cypress Creek Renewables.

After voting to give the project initial approval, commissioners will consider whether to give the project final approval during April 27 and May 11 meetings.

The land is currently used for hay production. With clay soil and no irrigation, the site is not considered high-value farmland, according to the Jackson County Development Services Department.

Grass will be planted beneath the solar panels, according to the Cypress Creek Renewables team.

Gov. Kate Brown signed legislation in March to end the use of electricity generated from coal in Oregon by 2030. The bill also requires the state to get at least 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2040.

With state mandates hastening the end of coal-powered electricity in Oregon, Pacific Power and other utilities are stepping up efforts to develop renewable energy sources.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.