Community solar project gets council go-ahead

Hoping that residents will pay to support their environmental principles, the city of Ashland is moving forward on a new solar project that will have a net cost of $305,000.

On Tuesday night, the Ashland City Council voted 4-2 to launch the project.

Residents can voluntarily invest in the project by paying $825 for one of 363 solar panels that will be installed by Eugene-based Advanced Energy Systems on a city building on North Mountain Avenue.

The solar system will generate enough electricity to power about 12 homes, representatives from the company 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.

While it might seem like a daunting task to convince people to buy panels, Ashland Electric Department Director Dick Wanderscheid said many residents have already been voluntarily paying to support renewable energy &

with no return on their donations.

Last year alone, residents bought $32,000 worth of "green tags," certificates offered by the City of Ashland and the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation to support wind, solar and other forms of alternative energy.

"That's people writing a check and not getting anything in return except knowing they are supporting renewable energy," Wanderscheid said.

He said 66 people are on a waiting list to be notified when the city solar panels go on sale.

But in the worst case scenario, if no one invests in a panel, everyone's electric bill will have to rise at a rate of 21 cents per month for a $100 bill to cover the project's cost, Wanderscheid said.

The project's genesis came more than two years ago after the city's Conservation Division encountered residents who could not afford to buy a full solar array for their houses, or who had limited access to sunlight because of home orientation, trees or the mountains to Ashland's south.

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

In February 2006, Ashland Conservation Analyst Larry Giardina estimated he had visited about 80 homes in the previous two years to give advice to owners about solar projects. But approximately 60 of those homes had reduced solar access.

Although a City Council majority voted to proceed with the solar project, councilors were not without reservations. Several said they would rather see the city sell the panels up front &

or at least get pledges of purchases &

before building the solar system.

Councilor Kate Jackson, voting with the majority, said the project will create locally generated renewable power, with no electricity loss from lengthy transmission distances through wires. The solar panels are also reasonably priced, she said.

Back in May 2007, the city rejected a bid that would have cost $10 per watt. The new bid from Advanced Energy Systems came in at $4.63 per watt, Wanderscheid said.

The net cost of the project has also been reduced because Bank of the Cascades is working with the city to take advantage of an Oregon Business Energy Tax Credit that will save the city $148,000.

Even with the savings, Councilor Russ Silbiger said the city could use the same amount of spending far more efficiently to conserve energy, which is at least as environmentally beneficial as generating renewable electricity.

For example, Silbiger said the city could loan residents money to buy new, energy efficient refrigerators. A resident would save enough money using the new model that he or she could pay back the loan in 10 years &

creating a continual, revolving fund of money to spur conservation efforts.

Residents who can afford to buy full solar arrays for their homes would be better off doing so than investing in the city solar project. With city, state and federal rebates and tax credits, a home solar system pays for itself in 15 to 20 years, Wanderscheid said.

The new solar system will be the second solar project for the city of Ashland.

In 2001, the city partnered with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Southern Oregon University and other entities to install solar panels on the Ashland Civic Center, Ashland Police Department, SOU library and OSF administrative building.

Many residents volunteered to be part of a program to help pay for that project, which generates enough electricity to power about eight homes.

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