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Council told solar farm project not feasible

More than a year of being adopted by the city council, the citizen-initiated renewable energy ordinance remains in a murky stage as a clear set of objectives has yet to be determined.

The ordinance, “10x20,” requires the city to produce 10 percent of the electricity used in the city from clean and local sources by the year 2020. But as the year 2017 comes to an end, city staff and the council still struggle to figure out the objectives and how to follow through the ordinance.

“My frustration all along is that I don’t know what we are trying to achieve with 10x20,” City Councilor Michael Morris said at the meeting. “I would love to see where it is we want to go, then we will figure out the best way to make it happen.”

The proposal for the 10-to-12 megawatt (MW) solar generation facility on the city’s property — previously deemed promising — has become infeasible as staff recommended the council look at alternative projects at a study session meeting Monday, Dec. 18.

Per a provision called “take or pay” in the contract with Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the city of Ashland is obligated to purchase all of its electricity load whether the city uses the power from BPA or not.

If the city generates its own power through solar farm, Ashland still has to pay for electricity from BPA through 2028, when the contract expires.

Through communication with BPA, staff was also informed of a legacy contract of the transmission of power that is exclusively for BPA generation. It would cost the city an addition of $750,000 annually if the city choose to bring more than 1 MW of non-BPA generation into the distribution grid, city Management Analyst Adam Hanks said at the meeting.

“This one isn’t a guarantee that it would apply,” he said. “If you producing full force at 5 (MW), but our consumption is not 5 (MW), something has to turn around and go back out. In that short period of time, we become an exporter … which could trigger the phase.”

Staff also presented the biological assessment for the Imperatrice Property, the potential location for the solar farm. The report shows a number of rare and sensitive conservation-concerned species in the area above the canal at the site.

“For conservation value, above the canal (area) is more significant with more rare plants,” a Pacific Crest Consulting specialist said. “The vegetation below the canal is quite disturbed.”

Conservation Commission included a memo in the study session packet, urging the council to retain the biological diversity of the site.

Three Ashland residents spoke at the meeting in support of building the solar farm at the site, citing parts of the site are “hardly pristine.”

Staff also laid out several alternative options, including a third-party-owned solar farm on city property; community solar; solar panels on city, commercial and private buildings’ rooftops; and upgrading the city’s hydro generation — all of which won’t trigger the “take or pay” provision.

“The number does add up to a theoretical building to meet the 10 percent requirement,” Hanks said. “The big asterisk there is we wouldn’t likely to do all of those things by the 2020 mark. That’s a very fair statement to be made.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery expressed interest in exploring the option of a solar farm, owned and operated by a third party, on the Imperatrice site. The city would be the landlord, Hanks explained, and the energy produced will go to PacifiCorp to be distributed.

“This seems like an opportunity to go somewhere with this, to produce the 10 percent,” Slattery said. “Although we don’t directly use it, we can still get the benefits anyway.”

“We’re sitting here looking at dead end street every time we turn,” Slattery added. “There’s no reason to not go beyond. Why won’t we do this if this is available to us, especially down the line, we could potentially convert it back to us.”

Slattery proposed to meet with citizens behind the 10x20 initiative to digest all the information currently available to the council, as the deadline of 2020 is closing in.

“We need to be in consistent with the ordinance or step up and say we are not going to honor the ordinance,” he said.

Mayor John Stromberg agreed, said it would be beneficial for the discussion.

“I would like to it in a way where we have preliminary conversation, trying to understand all aspects and having a response for them rather than coming in with another presentation,” Stromberg said.

No final decisions about the solar farm or any alternative projects were made at the meeting.

— Reach reporter Tran Nguyen at 541-776-4485 or tnguyen@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on twitter @nguyenntrann.