GUEST OPINION: Ashland solar project is viable

It is evident from the Tiding’s editorial (7/26) opposing an Ashland solar farm that some clarification of the city’s work with its 10x20 renewable energy ordinance might be useful. The ordinance states that “Ashland shall begin to produce 10 percent of its electricity from local renewable sources by 2020.”

Since this was adopted last summer, city staff has been at work to determine the most reasonable way to achieve its goal. None of this is lost on the city’s twin process, the Climate and Energy Action Plan, calling for the steady decrease in our use of non-renewable fuels.

Per the July 17 council study session, staff is examining options for implementing 10x20 from a menu of approaches. It is estimated that our watershed hydropower plant can be upgraded to meaningfully contribute toward that 10 percent. It is also known that wind systems located beyond the summit of Mt. Ashland can likely contribute to this goal. Due to regulatory and practical engineering requirements though, the 10x20 time frame does not encourage wind and hydro work at this time.

However, solar energy is viable, and it clearly appears to be a way to fulfill the ordinance. Various locations for a large system are under consideration. The city’s unused Imperatrice property ranks high among choices because we already own it. City staff has completed some of the groundwork necessary to determine its viability. Financially, such a system appears to "pencil out."

How is a large (about 10 megawatt) renewable energy system financed? A private third party which is eligible for the tax incentives can submit a proposal to build the system and to sell us the power under contract to the city. The city would accept or reject any such proposal based on its merits. What we look at is the price per kilowatt hour of the electricity it can produce. We pay for the system through our power bill, Kwh by Kwh. No taxes whatsoever are involved.

When the city offers the request-for-proposals, and proposals are collected, the community will help the council decide which proposal if any to accept. Only a contract which is clearly in our interest will make it through that gauntlet.

Good estimates of the impact of this "solar 10 percent" on our power bills can be made now. Residents and businesses might see an average monthly increase of between $2 and $7, and then only during the initial years of the project. The pricing due to the solar portion is essentially fixed over the 25-year life of the system, while Ashland’s standard portion will increase every two to three years. After about eight years, citizens can expect their overall rates to be lower than they would be without the project. In addition, the Bonneville contract clause causing the billing of displaced energy will likely see modification or perhaps never even be invoked.

This project does not "replace renewables with renewables." The Bonneville power we displace with 10x20 can instead be sold on the Northwest grid by Bonneville. Ashland’s renewable energy will also be added into that grid, but just locally. While Bonneville hydropower is very clean, once it is placed on that grid it mixes with everything else on the grid, almost 50 percent of which comes from non-renewable gas, coal and nuclear plants. In effect, Ashland can reduce, by the amount of energy we produce, that same amount of coal/gas/nuclear power currently used across the Northwest grid, by Bonneville selling its clean energy elsewhere.

Understanding the above allows us to better appreciate all of what 10x20 represents. It is an Ashland-based action designed to do something, to participate in the work that must be done to actually affect climate change dynamics.

Lastly, in understanding the opposition to a 10x20 project on the Imperatrice property, citizens should know that several local groups or entities have an interest in that property and some have lobbied hard for its use.

The good news is that these interests are not really competing. The sum of public comments in city meetings and common sense indicates that Imperatrice can readily accommodate all of these interests, sharing this valuable resource cooperatively.

— Dr. Tom Marvin is an emeritus professor of physics at Southern Oregon University.


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