A solar farm bigger than any other in Oregon could sprout at the Medford airport under a proposal that would tap into federal stimulus dollars set aside for alternative energy and conservation.

A solar farm bigger than any other in Oregon could sprout at the Medford airport under a proposal that would tap into federal stimulus dollars set aside for alternative energy and conservation.

The project would eventually spread over 70 acres and buzz with enough electricity to power the equivalent of roughly 2,000 homes in Medford, officials said.

"We're thinking pretty big," said Bern Case, Medford airport director. "We think our timing is good."

He said the county has about 5 acres' of rooftops at the airport along with another 5 acres leased to private firms that could be fitted with solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity. Other possibilities are the Jackson County Expo Park and county buildings in White City.

About 60 acres also are available around the runways, but could require an environmental review before the photovoltaic panels could be built there, he said.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said that in addition to these projects, the county is exploring a grant to install solar panels on other county buildings, such as the courthouse or libraries.

He said the projects would not only provide jobs but have the possibility of making the county energy independent.

"If we could save hundreds of thousands of dollars on energy each year, why not?" he said.

The county has hired RHT Energy Solutions in Medford to help put together applications in the next week that can be sent to the federal government, which has imposed a short deadline for stimulus projects.

If built, the solar complex would dwarf any other similar facility in the state, said Buzz Thielemann, owner of RHT.

"It would be by far and away the largest solar facility in Oregon," he said.

Thielemann said the projects could cost roughly $100 million, but he cautioned that it is too early to throw out precise numbers.

As part of the federal stimulus package, there is $3.2 billion available in energy efficiency and conservation grants. Another $16 billion is available for efficiency and renewable energy grants for projects such as wind or solar.

"Our approach is to go for both," said Thielemann. "It's smart to err on the ambitious side."

If 70 acres were covered in solar panels at the airport, it would generate about 14 megawatts of power, he said. By comparison, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada installed a 14-megawatt solar array that supplies 25 percent of its electricity needs, according to Nellis' Web site. In 2007, the U.S. Air Force stated it was the largest solar project in North America. In the desert east of Los Angeles, a consortium of energy producers is hoping to build a solar array that would eventually produce 900 megawatts.

Thielemann said he is exploring different solar projects at the airport to maximize the use of an area that gets some of the best sun exposure in the valley.

One possible project is installing canopies at the airport's new parking area that would cover cars and provide a walkway for pedestrians who want to stay out of the sun or rain, said Thielemann. The canopies would be covered with solar panels, similar to a carport that Thielemann built at his offices on Boardman Street in Medford.

Even with gloomy, cold weather Friday, Thielemann said one of his solar arrays was generating 95 percent of its possible output, pumping energy back into the grid. He said photovoltaic panels actually are more efficient on cold, clear days than during the summer when temperatures nudge 100 degrees.

At $7 million to $8 million for each megawatt generated, Thielemann said the capital outlay for these types of projects is considerable. "These are not cheap," he said.

He spent $100,000 to build the photovoltaic panels at his own business, but after a tax rebate and other incentives, more than 50 percent of it was repaid in the first year. After about five years, he estimates the savings in electricity would pay off the remainder of the project. "Then, the power is free," he said.

Thielemann said an average 80 percent of his annual power needs comes from the sun at one of his small office buildings and 65 percent at the other.

Putting in solar panels is more complicated than most people realize. To route the power back into the grid, the panels need to be installed near electric systems. That's one reason Thielemann believes installing canopies in the parking area might work because of the proximity to existing power.

Fourteen megawatts of power from a solar farm at the airport would be significant, Thielemann said, but added many of the large industrial plants in the area require anywhere from 5 to 12 megawatts.

Expo director Chris Borovansky said it hasn't been determined how many solar panels would be installed, but he said the Compton Arena and the upcoming Mace Watchable Wildlife Facility would be two good candidates.

The Expo already has a small demonstration photovoltaic facility capable of providing enough electricity to power three households.

Thielemann said his energy-consulting company will be devoting all its energies toward meeting approaching federal deadlines.

"We are going full-bore ahead making the applications," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.