Guest Opinion: Why a solar farm makes no sense

Part 1

Kudos to the Tidings for pointing out the abject silliness of the solar farm on the Imperatrice Property proposed by the authors of the equally silly 10x20 ordinance. Let me expand on why this is such a bad idea. In the second part of this opinion, I’ll suggest how Ashland can meet at least the intent of the ordinance.

The 10x20 ordinance requires Ashland to obtain 10 percent of its electricity from “new, clean, local” sources by the year 2020. The ordinance was sold as a way to make Ashland’s electricity “greener” and improve energy independence and security.

But the solar farm the 10X20 advocates envision will do none of those things. In fact, it will do little more than boost everyone’s electric rates.

The ordinance was adopted by the City Council rather than putting it on the ballot, where its surface appeal would have no doubt resulted in passage. Adoption also gave the council the ability to start the necessary modifications before implementing it.

It soon became clear that the 10x20 advocates didn’t want just any “new, clean, local” electricity; they wanted a solar farm on the Imperatrice property, an 863-acre city-owned parcel on the north side of I-5. The ordinance makes no reference to a solar farm. In fact, the words “solar” and “renewable” do not appear anywhere in the ordinance.

But a solar farm makes no sense for Ashland. Let’s examine why.

First, Ashland’s electricity comes almost entirely from clean, green, carbon-free hydropower that the city purchases from the Bonneville Power Administration, so a solar farm will not make Ashland cleaner, greener or more carbon-free. The advocates argue that the BPA hydropower mixes with other electrons on the regional electricity grid, so the actual electrons we use aren’t necessarily carbon-free.

Well, yes and no. Ashland is part of a cooperative that pays the BPA to generate clean, green, carbon-free hydropower. In exchange, the city is allowed to pull a certain amount of electricity off the regional grid — dirt-cheap. (More on that later.) It’s true there’s a mix of green and “brown” electrons in the grid. But electricity flows from its point of production to its closest point of use. It doesn’t flow to a central clearinghouse where it’s then redistributed. Look at a map of generation facilities in Southern Oregon and you can see quite clearly that Ashland gets all of its electricity from hydropower. A solar farm will not make us “greener.” It will simply allow the clean, green carbon-free electrons that now power our homes and businesses to bypass us (at great expense) so they can be used by someone else whose electricity is not as green as ours.

The 10x20 advocates further argue that a solar farm will improve our energy security by assuring that we have a city-owned generation facility in the event the predicted “Big One” earthquake destroys the regional grid. But if the Big One destroys the regional grid, it will almost certainly destroy Ashland’s distribution system as well. The only people getting electricity after the Big One will be those with solar panels on their roofs and then only when the sun is shining. And do you suppose state and federal resources will rebuild the regional grid or little Ashland’s distribution system? We all know the answer to that question.

What’s more, a large, expensive, unnecessary solar farm wouldn’t even generate electricity during peak use hours (6 to 10 p.m.) for about five months of the year. During the winter months, there isn’t any sunshine during those peak hours. So the city would still be totally dependent on its BPA contract to meet peak demand and a solar farm would do nothing for us except jack up electric rates.

The independent Bonneville Environmental Foundation estimates the power from a solar farm would be three times more costly than BPA’s clean, green, carbon-free power ($90/megawatt hour vs. $30/megawatt hour). City staff last fall estimated that the solar farm electricity would be about 50 percent more expensive than BPA power.

So how do we meet the intent of the 10X20 ordinance? I’ll address that question in part 2.

— Dave Kanner is the former Ashland city administrator.


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