How do you increase opportunities for public participation in a process without adding significant time and complexity? That is the issue Oregon’s Energy Facility Siting Council has been grappling with over the past few years as it looks to update its administrative rules for making amendments to the site certificates issued for large-scale energy facilities.
Site certificates are the state approval necessary to construct and operate energy facilities. After the owners of such a facility get a site certificate from EFSC, they may later want to change some aspect of the facility. Most changes require an amendment to the site certificate.
It’s only natural for those owners to want EFSC to review and approve the proposed changes as swiftly as possible. It’s also understandable for residents near a facility to want to give their input on the proposed changes, just as they might want to chime in on a proposed shopping center or high school.
EFSC’s current amendment processes work fairly well for facilities with a relatively small footprint, such as a natural gas plant. Facilities with small footprints often have an easier time meeting EFSC’s standards for approval compared to those with larger footprints.
“The process was built on gas plants that are typically 20 to 40 acres,” explains Todd Cornett, Assistant Director of the Siting Division in the Oregon Department of Energy. The Siting Division serves as staff to EFSC.
But proposed expansions of site boundaries, particularly large-scale expansions like the ones that have been submitted for wind farms, can have significant impacts. In addition, large-scale expansions often draw more attention from the public, in part because they tend to have more adjacent property owners. The average site boundary of the past five wind farms EFSC has approved is just under 20,000 acres.
“When we started this review of the amendment processes, there was a lot of concern around the wind facilities,” says Cornett. “Some of these facilities required significant amendments. There were also many requests to extend the deadlines for beginning construction, so for members of the public who opposed these facilities, there was no finality.
“The ‘not knowing’ is a significant impact. One facility has gone through three requests to extend construction deadlines and each of those extensions were for two years.” For this example, between the original three-year deadline and the three extension requests, the developer has been given nine years from the date of the approval to begin construction.
Other ‘large footprint’ energy facilities are starting to trickle in, too. In 2016, EFSC saw its first solar electric proposal. The Boardman Solar Energy Facility is planned to sit on about 600 acres of land bordering Interstate 84 in the northwest corner of Morrow County, which is home to several EFSC-approved facilities.
“The difficulty is finding a single review process that accommodates all the different types of potential proposed changes from the wide variety of energy facilities within our jurisdiction,” says Cornett. “Our review will always evaluate proposed changes against EFSC’s standards. This rulemaking addresses the process by which we evaluate them, and how we include the public in that review.” One of the more significant details of the proposed changes would add a mandatory public hearing to one of the review processes, something that is not required under any of the existing review processes.
As it weighs these challenging and complex issues, EFSC has sought input from stakeholders, with several in-depth meetings and a lengthy hearing in July. A handful of entities – from utilities to developers to the public – have consistently waded through the nitty-gritty details of the proposed rule changes, and they are anticipated to continue doing so during the final written comment period.
The rulemaking process proposing to change the rules for how requests for amendments are reviewed and approved will continue at the next EFSC meeting on September 21-22 in Boardman, where staff will present an informational update to EFSC. The Council will also address this rulemaking at its October 19-20 meeting, where it could make a final decision after considering all the comments on the record.