The major energy project slated for Morrow County is going to have a ripple effect — with the capacity for more battery storage than any other facility in the country. With that surge in power storage will come funds for local schools’ science, technology and art programs.

Portland General Electric and NextEra Energy Resources have partnered to build the Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility, which combines wind, solar and battery power. As of Wednesday, the Morrow County Board of Commissioners approved an updated agreement that will include the capacity for solar and battery power at that facility. The previous agreement included plans for a wind energy project, but no plans for solar and battery had yet been finalized.

Morrow County commissioners approved an updated Strategic Investment Program agreement at a meeting on Wednesday, which allows for the addition of up to 150 megawatts of solar electricity, and 150 megawatts of battery storage. That’s in addition to a capacity of 450 megawatts of wind energy. PGE will shut down a 450-megawatt coal-fired plant near Boardman at the end of 2020, around the time the wind farm is scheduled to start operating. Work on the solar array and battery storage is set to begin in 2021.

Though it didn’t change from the original SIP agreement, Morrow County Commissioner Jim Doherty said he was most excited about the benefit it would have for local schools. The agreement states that for the 15 years that the SIP agreement will last, $1 million will be given to Morrow County schools — $600,000 to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, and $400,000 to art and music programs.

“For Morrow County, that became a reality today,” he said.

A SIP agreement means that after the first $25 million in taxable income, the companies will pay some portion of their income to local entities, in lieu of paying property taxes. The county has a 15-year SIP agreement with Wheatridge. If built to its full potential, the project could lead to nearly $5 million in annual SIP payments to the county.

Doherty led a team of people who spent several years studying solar energy and battery storage before approving the amended agreement, learning how battery storage operates and is taxed.

He said PGE approached the county about putting in solar and battery storage. But there was no facility in the United States with a facility comparable to what was being proposed for the Wheatridge project.

A facility in Arizona was the closest they could find, with 30 megawatts of solar energy, and 10 megawatts of battery storage.

“It was a start, so we went out there, and came back with a number to NextEra,” he said.

The battery portion of the project is taxable, Doherty said.

“I still hazard that it’ll be a year or two into this that we’ll find out whether we got it right,” Doherty said. “That emerging technology has businesses getting out a couple years ahead of the tax abatement program. The value has already come down considerably.”

But he said they got a dollar figure they were comfortable with.

Doherty said the potential for renewable energy in Morrow County is vast — he counted about six solar projects and as many wind projects in the same area as Wheatridge.

“The important thing is that folks are seeing returns coming back to them,” he said.

Doherty said that aspect of the agreement started with visits to Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, whose district covers the northwesternmost part of the state, including a portion of the Portland-Metro area. Doherty said when he first began looking into a project getting funding for STEM in the area, he heard Bonamici, an advocate for STEM, speak, and presented some of his own ideas to her.

“She said she and her staff would love to follow through with this,” he said.

Morrow County School District Superintendent Dirk Dirksen said they are very excited about the programs that can be funded.

“We’re looking forward to them breaking ground so we can get started making plans for how we’ll add programs after school and on Fridays,” he said. Morrow County schools have a four-day week, so there would be opportunities to add a variety of classes. Dirksen said that could mean anything from robotics and computer science to coding, career technical education, or arts programs.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown issued a statement about the agreement.

“I am so pleased to see that as Oregon looks to its future in renewable energy infrastructure, we are also planning ahead for the future of the Oregonians who will drive innovation in this field for generations to come — our students,” she said.

Doherty said he hopes that the funding will open up a world of new opportunities for Morrow County students.

“I envision kids coming out of there with art and design goals — that the data centers and Nikes of the region will want to hire,” he said.

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