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From Issue #48 July 31, 2014

It’s Easy Being Green

A rural county finds a surprisingly easy economic path to energy sufficiency and carbon offsets.

By Lee van der Voo Twitter icon 

A 2-megawatt solar farm located at the county fairgrounds.

If you’ve never heard of Lake County, Oregon, you’re not alone. Though it’s one of Oregon’s largest counties, only 7,895 people live here amid the nearly 9,000 square miles of dust and sagebrush. If you drive south from Bend toward California, you cut right through it. Yet apart from the antelope, the alkali lakes, and the stunning geologic features, you wouldn’t peg it as unique.

If you look closely at this place, however, particularly behind those windy ridges and at the county seat of Lakeview, past the cattle ranches and surrounding mountains, past the timber haul that trickles from the Fremont-Winema National Forest, there’s something else: energy. Lots of it. And not the kind you find at a pep rally.

Lake County sits atop a massive geothermal reserve. It also gets roughly 300 days of sun a year, and wind so fierce it sets the dust blowing in monstrous, rainless clouds. Those things alone bring sparkles to the eyes of renewable-energy developers. Add to the mix a defunct military radar facility known as the Over-the-Horizon Backscatter Radar Array, and you’ve got something special.

Backscatter comes with two separate 115-kilovolt transmission lines built during the Cold War as part of necessary military redundancy. Together, the lines can carry about 200 megawatts (MW), or enough to power well over 100,000 homes. Because the lines are already in place, developers can avoid the huge logistical and financial costs involved in carrying power out of the region. Midstate Electric Co-op owns the lines but use them at nowhere near capacity. They lie beneath the soil like a subterranean welcome mat for investors.

The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) spurred a renewable energy rush in the West. Lake County Commissioner Brad Winters says speculators whisked through town on breathless 24-hour tears across the region — dubbed the “Oregon Outback” — drunk on its vistas and possibilities.

These visitors weren’t the reason a small group of people in Lake County (mostly civic leaders) pushed a mission to develop renewable energy here. That mission dates back to the late ’90s. The concern then was rather that Lakeview, and Lake County, would go ghost town in the post-timber era without economic revision. Renewables emerged as the best bet ahead.

Never mind that it’s a place where the Columbia Sportswear of northern Oregon is traded for plaid and bolo ties, and where timber workers and ranchers voted overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney in 2012. This county is likely to be first or among the first in the nation to hit a net zero of energy consumption.

View to the southwest of the antennas that were part of the radar network.

Snatched from the air, sky, and ground

A study of Lake County in January 2013 found that it emits nearly 290,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually from agriculture operations, vehicle emissions, and power consumption. The county offsets 27,000 tons with existing renewable energy projects. If projects currently in the pipeline reach development, the county could offset a total of 267,000 tons or 93 percent. However, the full potential of solar and geothermal capability hasn’t been assessed yet, and further development could allow the region to offset more carbon dioxide than it produces, while also generating more energy than it consumes.

“One of my passions in the last part of my career is this climate change stuff,” says Jim Walls, the mild-mannered man behind the push for energy production. He is apt to tell just about anyone — including the United States Congress, where he recently testified — that there’s no point in arguing over the causes or reality of climate change, because renewable energy development brings its own reward for rural communities: it could be an economic lifesaver.

Walls is the head of the Lake County Resource Initiative, and led its board of directors and staff to set their sights on the net-zero goal. Following years of post-timber angst and planning, Walls was hired by the organization to carry the community out of its downturn. The future envisioned then was one involving biomass as a kind of life support to the last standing mill. That vision has changed: now it encompasses the region’s renewable energy potential — and that’s a lot of potential.

Development, at first, was like a leaking faucet. Some geothermal heating here. A few solar panels there. By 2010, however, it had become a river. The region was awash in ARRA money due in large part to the Ruby Pipeline, a natural-gas conduit. Even though the project wouldn’t bring more affordable fuel to the city, the pipeline project filled the town with Dodge Rams and big men in safety vests. The city’s storefronts used to have businesses come and go, but the construction project kept tills full for a while.

A namesake watering hole — the Ruby — has since vanished. In its place, the secondhand store with colored glass in its window signals Lakeview’s return to what it once was: a place where churches dramatically outnumber bars and people quietly raise children on mill salaries and ranches. But the visionaries who forecast that this place would be the first in the nation to produce more energy than it consumes have managed to keep their momentum.

The county fairgrounds, the site of many a flea market and a robust annual fair and livestock auction, now boasts a backdrop of articulating solar panels that track the sun. They are owned by the county. The new 4H pens share space with a 2 MW solar farm owned by PacifiCorp that is expected to produce 4,500 megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity per year; that’s enough energy to power about 400 homes.

A Pepsi distribution warehouse sports a few solar panels too. And the prison, the hospital, and the schools are all heated with geothermal energy, skirting the high cost of heating with oil or propane in a place where gasoline is $4.15 a gallon at the pump.

Commercial energy development has found similar success. When it was built by Obsidian Renewables in November 2012, the solar farm that cohabitates with the 4H sheep was the largest utility-scale solar array in Oregon. By January the company had built an array more than twice the size, at 5.7 MW, in nearby Christmas Valley. Another was built in March. Now a fourth is in the works, this one by Element Power, planned at a whopping 12 MW.

Four years ago, Iberdrola Renewables, the US subsidiary of a Spanish energy giant, set plans to build a biomass plant in cooperation with Collins Pine Company’s sawmill at the center of Lakeview. Those plans faltered when California blocked utilities from using out-of-state supplies to meet renewable energy standards. Now the company is in talks with data centers instead, probing a possible off-grid data farm powered by trees.

Red Rock Biofuels, based in Colorado, meanwhile aims to beat Iberdrola to whatever thinned timber leaves the Freemont-Winema forest. It’s one of four companies left competing for a $70 million federal pot to spur production of low-cost renewable jet fuel for the Department of Defense. The company claims it can produce the cellulosic fuel for $1.65 a gallon, which would be a windfall when compared to the current cost of just under $3 a gallon.

Three companies are meanwhile drilling wells to kickstart geothermal power plants on lands surrounding Lakeview, and Surprise Valley Electric, a nonprofit electric co-op, has developed the first, on a ranch in the nearby town of Paisley.

Two companies are also looking seriously at wind projects. And a tilapia farmer has been to town eyeing all that hot water cycling through the prison, schools, and hospital. It turns out the loop returns water just warm enough to hatch fish. 1

Asked whether people in Lakeview have noticed the subtle changes in the landscape, Ray Simms, the town manager, shrugs. “For these things that we’re doing here, solar panels on a home or a generator, I think they’ve become commonplace. They just don’t spark our attention like they used to,” he says.

One of the neighbors of the solar farm

Not in my back forty

The little conflict that has arisen from the integration of renewables has come from unlikely places. At Jerry’s, the ’70s-era downtown diner that offers distant echoes of the atomic age, it’s not at all odd to find ranchers in caps talking about geothermal power over coffee. Hot wells are a part of ranch operations, not to mention the secret ingredient at a local commercial greenhouse. More artistic, left-leaning sorts, however, have voiced concern about loss of views in the county’s more remote areas, and whether solar panels might be befuddling wildlife.

Criticism from those intent on holding the county’s financial reins has been shrewd. They don’t want to pay construction bonds if the hospital and schools fall down on payments for geothermal heat. And they want cleanup of solar panels and geothermal drills worked into contracts so that startups can’t leave their detritus if they go broke. Some want Iberdrola on the hook for state-of-the-art air scrubbers if burning biomass becomes economically viable in the area, which would allow locals to use wood — the cheapest fuel of all. Local air quality is already poor due to dust, smoke from wood burned for heat, and Lakeview’s mill; the scrubbers would be needed to prevent it from becoming worse.

Nimbyism is, at times, a factor here as much as anywhere. “The tension comes from a way of life that we’re very used to here: wide-open space without much around us,” Winters says.

The efforts of a few, however, have brought more than just hope from this dry basin that has lost four of its five mills over a decade, and a quarter of its population. They’ve brought vision, a path forward, and, perhaps, eventual notoriety.2

Last fall, with state support, the community birthed what’s called the Innovation Learning Center in an empty middle school in Lakeview, a partnership between several colleges, chiefly Klamath Community College, and the school district. It has dozens of students already, big numbers for a place of this size. All are intent on higher education or job training through synchronized video classrooms that link the students to colleges in Oregon and beyond.

Four-year degrees are on offer — an ag degree has proved most exciting to those steeped in ranching — as well as trade skills and job training. The center’s vision also includes the creation of a renewable energy engineering degree. It will allow students to, among other things, evaluate the energy potential of whole communities to make plans, as Lake County has done, to move toward net-zero energy consumption through renewable energy development.

The push to capture the region’s energy potential has been successful enough that a meeting of Lake County and state leaders is planned for the end of July, at which they will decide whether they ought to be spearheading similar innovation across the rest of America’s backcountry.

“If we implemented everything that was doable, really financially doable, we could offset 93 percent of our carbon emissions,” Walls says. “If we could do that, the 18,000 rural communities in America that do not have natural gas, what could they do?”

Radar picture from the Library of Congress. Other photos by the author.


  1. Lee recently reported for The Magazine on aquaponic farming in Hawaii, which relies on a closed system of hydroponics and water circulation, including raising tilapia: “Tanks for Everything.” 

  2. A small town in eastern Washington, Soap Lake, has been slowly pursuing a different path to prevent its ultimate demise: a giant lava lamp. John Patrick Pullen wrote “A Beacon of Hope” for The Magazine in July 2013 (Issue #21). 

Lee van der Voo writes about food, sustainability, crime, and the environment. A former Alicia Patterson fellow, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, and TheAtlantic.com. It has been supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Fund for Environmental Journalism. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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