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Solar farm proposed near Medford airport

With backing from lawmakers and local businesses, Jackson County officials want to harness the sun to feed power directly into the region's electrical grid, which could generate not only power, but as much as $1.2 million annually for the Medford airport.

If a proposed solar farm is built near the airport with about $45 million in federal stimulus money, it would generate peak power of 7.9 megawatts — enough electricity for a large timber products company or more than 1,500 homes. By comparison the peak demand for Medford is 300 megawatts.

Following a presentation and discussion Tuesday, members of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners said they want to apply for an initial $5 million grant from federal stimulus money that would kick-start the project and install complicated connections needed to put electricity back into the grid. The solar panels, which turn to follow the sun, would be placed on land owned by the county east of Corona Avenue and south of Crater Lake Highway, about a quarter-mile directly east of the Fred Meyer store on the highway.

"Hopefully, this will be the first step of the entire project," said Commissioner Dave Gilmour.

One of the selling points of the project is that it would provide more hours of peak power output, which would have the advantage of reducing reliance on hydroelectric dams.

The county also hopes the project would stimulate interest from local businesses in creating a partnership between the private sector and government to erect more solar panels.

Each panel is 45 feet tall and 70 feet wide. The initial $5 million investment would purchase 12 panels. Ultimately, the county hopes to put 140 panels on the property.

The electricity would go directly into the grid, and the extra money could allow the airport to reduce fees and make flying out of Medford more affordable, Gilmour said.

The county previously had submitted grant requests for about $100 million to build the solar farm and other sun-powered projects in the county, including at the Jackson County Expo, a maintenance building in White City and in the short-term parking area of the airport.

Although it didn't receive the first round of grants, the application puts the county in the running to go after other competitive federal grants in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

A newer, less-expensive solar panel would lower costs from $72 million estimated earlier to $45 million on the Corona property. All the county projects together are now estimated to cost less than $60 million.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, have endorsed the project.

In addition, Pacific Power and Avista Corp. would back the solar farm proposal.

Monte Mendenhall, a spokesman for Pacific Power, said his company is not only interested in buying power from the solar farm, but potentially in making an investment in the project itself.

"Last Friday, I wrote a letter of support for the project," he said.

He said the company is interested in renewable energy and creating better electrical distribution systems that take advantage of local power generation and reduce reliance on transporting electricity over the grid.

Buzz Thielemann, owner of RHT Energy Solutions in Medford, said three local companies have indicated interest in the solar project, which would allow them to take advantage of business tax credits. He said he couldn't reveal the names of the companies until he received a stronger commitment.

Thielemann said the new, lower cost solar panels produce more electricity by not only tracking the sun but in concentrating the energy more effectively.

"It's just like when you were a kid and you're burning a piece of paper through a magnifying glass," he said.

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