City encourages large solar systems

In an effort to encourage large-scale solar projects, the city of Ashland has changed its landmark policy that allows people to sell excess power from their solar panels.

Before, people with systems of up to 25 kilowatts could receive credit on their electric bills for the extra electricity their systems fed back into Ashland's electric grid.

The Ashland City Council unanimously raised that bar to 50 kilowatt systems on Tuesday night.

More people and businesses may be taking advantage of federal and state tax incentives to install bigger systems, said Ashland Electric Department Director Dick Wanderscheid.

"We're hearing some systems may go in that are over 25 kilowatts. The largest one we've heard of that's being planned is 32 kilowatts," he said.

Some people may be racing to install solar systems because of uncertainty over whether Congress will reauthorize federal incentives for solar that expire at the end of this year. Several reauthorization bills have been introduced, but none have passed so far, Wanderscheid said.

He estimated that 42 net-metered solar systems in Ashland are connected to the grid.

Ashland first passed a net metering policy in 1996, making it the first community in the Northwest to pay solar system owners for their extra electricity. Since then, other Northwest utilities have followed Ashland's lead, Wanderscheid said.

In 2005, the amount of solar electricity connected to Ashland's grid doubled to 66 kilowatts after the city increased the amount of money it gives as rebates to people who install solar.

The amount connected to the grid doubled again this year to at least 140 kilowatts.

In February, the City Council approved the installation of a 63.5 kilowatt solar system on a city building on North Mountain Avenue at a net cost of $305,000. Local businessman and former mayor Alan DeBoer also installed an 11.2 kilowatt system on his Ashland Historic Armory building this year.

Residents can voluntarily invest in the city solar project by paying $825 for one of 363 solar panels.

The city has sold 82 panels so far, Wanderscheid said.

People who take part will receive annual credits on their energy bills that equal the value of the electricity their panels generate. The payback will be at least $348 to $425 over 20 years on one panel — or about half the amount a person invests.

The city solar project allows people who can't buy a full solar system or who don't have good sun exposure to support solar generation.

If the city doesn't sell all of the solar panels, electric customers will have to make up the difference.

Before any of the panels sold, city staff laid out a worst-case scenario. They estimated electric bills would have to go up 21 cents per month for a $100 bill to cover the cost if no one bought a panel.

The city is preparing to send out a second round of mailings to promote its solar system. City staff are also working with nonprofit groups to see if people can donate a solar panel to a group and get a tax benefit. The nonprofit could be credited with the electricity the panel generates, Wanderscheid said.

With a city rebate and state and federal tax incentives, a person who can afford to install a full solar system would be better off financially to do so. Solar systems pay for themselves in about 20 years.

Solar systems for the typical home range from about $13,000 to $32,000, although city rebates and state and federal tax credits reduce the final cost.

For more information on buying a panel from the city's solar project or for information on installing a solar system, call the city's Conservation Division at 488-5306.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit

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