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A sunny 'eyesore'

One man's vision of generating all of his electricity needs from the sun has polarized an east Medford neighborhood that once united against a police communications tower in 2011.

Buzz Thielemann, a local energy expert and former owner of RHT Energy in Medford, has wanted to "walk the talk" for years and put solar panels on his Ridge Way house on Capital Hill near Spring Street.

"I always felt hypocritical because I didn't have them," he said.

Unfortunately, his roof wasn't in a good spot to collect the solar rays, so he built a $60,000 pedestal structure with 36 panels in his front yard that also acts as a carport. The installation, the cost of which will be offset by more than $30,000 in tax credits, is similar to the solar panels at the Medford airport parking lot, which Thielemann worked on several years ago.

Some neighbors applaud the solar structure that powered up two months ago, while others think the soaring galvanized edifice is an eyesore in this older, bucolic neighborhood with large lots and spacious front lawns dotted by towering cedar trees.

Neighbors, who were his ally in the police tower battle with the city, no longer talk to him because they say he misrepresented the installation.

"It's an eyesore," said Pat Johnson. "I know he can't tear that monstrosity down, but he needs to do something to hide it."

Thielemann acknowledges it's not the best-looking structure in the world, but he quickly points out that he is "net zero," meaning he puts as much electricity into the grid as he takes out. He has also installed a backup generator in his front yard as a precaution in case the power goes out or the area has an earthquake. Outlets have been installed on either side of his house so he can provide electricity to his neighbors in an emergency.

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he said.

Still, Thielemann said he plans to paint the galvanized metal and plant Italian cypresses to help conceal the structure and soften its sharp look.

Thielemann joined other neighbors in 2011 to oppose a 130-foot-tall tower on Capital Hill. Police eventually removed the tower and built a shorter one on the hill.

Throughout the construction of his solar array, Thielemann faced various obstacles, including having to move the location where the two pedestals would be installed because workers hit bedrock. He's poured 30 square yards of concrete to secure the pedestals. Thielemann also has faced scrutiny from the city, which early on found setback issues.

The Medford Planning Department needs proof from a surveyor that the solar structure is at least eight feet from the side property line to be compliant with city codes. Once the surveyor signs off, the city can issue a building permit.

Before he paints the structure and plants the cypresses, he said, he wants to make sure he gets final approval from the city because of questions raised by neighbors about the location of the solar carport.

As a consideration to neighbors, Thielemann said the rake of his solar installation is 27 degrees versus the much taller 43 degrees at the airport. The result is that his solar panels capture only 83 percent of the sun's energy while the airport's capture 94 percent.

On Wednesday afternoon, his solar panels, built in Oregon, were partially shaded by 2 p.m., producing about 1,500 watts, or enough to run a hair dryer. Even with the lower output, his meter was still running in reverse.

Proud of his structure, Thielemann said the energy he derives from the sun is like removing 9.7 metric tons of carbon a year, or planting 251 trees that help remove carbon from the air.

Thielemann said he's aware of the irony of his battle with the city over the police tower, but said his solar installation is a fraction of the height at only 23 feet. The roof that holds the panels is 30 feet by 20 feet.

Johnson, his neighbor and former ally, said the scale of the structure is in opposition to the country feel of Capital Hill, with winding roads and lots of trees. She sees this as another threat from the city, which put up the police tower without consulting with the neighbors. She said Bend has done a better job of developing its community than Medford.

"They ruined the country," said the 66-year-old who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. "It's in our faces."

Patti Ayers, who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years, said the solar panels can be seen from her backyard and they make her "gag."

"He's divided the neighborhood," Ayers said. "To me, I hate looking at the roof of that thing."

How Thielemann was able to build the structure is beyond Ayers.

"Whoever agreed to it wasn't paying attention," Ayers said.

She said she and other neighbors thought he was building a small carport with a few solar panels.

"He led us all to believe that is what he is doing," Ayers said.

Other neighbors, such as Paul Sokoloff, have a completely different view of the edifice, which Sokoloff affectionately called a "water slide."

"I liked it when he first asked me about it," the 61-year-old said. "It's below the tree line and wasn't blocking anything."

When Sokoloff steps out onto his front balcony, he said he's quite happy with the technology behind the solar panels and is also happy that Thielemann installed an outlet for him in case the power goes out.

Sokoloff said he appreciates the fact the solar panels will offset all of Thielemann's electricity needs, and the generator will help provide power to neighbors in an emergency.

"I thought it was good for the environment," he said. "He's doing it right."

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Buzz Thielemann says his solar panels are enough to cover all of the power needs of his home off of Ridge Way in Medford. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]