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Spotlight on Climate Solutions: Off-site solar is a win for Ashland Food Co-op

Solar energy production in Ashland has taken major leaps forward in 2021.

In April, True South Solar completed a major solar installation for the Ashland Food Co-op. At 528-panels, this array has a solar energy production capacity of 197 kilowatts — possibly the largest single rooftop array in Ashland. SOU also recently significantly expanded its solar generation.

The Food Co-op’s newest solar array is located four miles away, on the roof of Oak Street Tank & Steel on Jefferson Avenue in south Ashland. This long-distance relationship was made possible by the city of Ashland’s Virtual Net Metering program.

VNM was approved in late 2017 to accelerate solar development in the city. While Ashland has abundant solar resources, it also has rugged terrain and a mature tree canopy. For many residents and businesses, rooftop solar is just not feasible. Through VNM (also called off-site solar), Ashland Electric ratepayers can buy into a solar system anywhere within the city's electric grid and receive credit on their utility bill. (Visit Ashland-solar.coop to sign up for updates on local community solar opportunities.)

VNM accounts for about 10% of the 3.25 megawatts of solar capacity installed in the city over the past 20 years.

The Food Co-op has a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. To reach that goal, it had already built three arrays on its own buildings, which produce 12% of its power.

“We had maxed out our solar production on our own property,.” explains Co-op General Manager Emile Amarotico. So, the Co-op began purchasing renewable energy certificates from Bonneville Environmental Foundation to help reach its net-zero goals.

The Oak Street Tank project is the next step in reaching its goals — and it’s an excellent business move as well. “Local solar energy, at or below our expected future costs? What a great deal,” says Amarotico. “This is a model that works for us.”

True South Solar did the installation on the roof of the Oak Street Tank building. “Everything happened flawlessly,” says Amarotico. “Now we’re producing up to 55% of our needs. And I want in on the next big deal.”

The Ashland Food Co-op is also looking to enhance its resilience by adding battery storage, says Amarotico. “Even though we have solar, we can’t store it.” Corvallis-based Mayfield Renewables is doing a feasibility study for the Co-op to determine its needs and options.

Owners of large roofs or underutilized land can use VNM to lease their roof or land for solar development that can be credited to other ratepayers.

“You’ve got to have sites, and you’ve got to have willing building owners,” says Tomas Endicott, developer for the Co-op project. The owners of Oak Street Tank “were willing to lease their roof for 25 years. That’s a long period of time.”

That wouldn’t work for every building owner. “That’s a good reason to utilize public buildings,” Endicott explains. The hangars at Ashland Municipal Airport, for example, could host a large community solar array.

Endicott sees a potential for more large solar arrays in Ashland — either for a single or multiple Ashland Electric customers joining together. “There’s a huge amount of solar resources here,” says Endicott. “There’s lots of opportunity.”

It makes perfect sense, agrees Eric Hansen, principal owner and general manager at True South Solar. “The value proposition for this type of system is so compelling,” says Hansen. “VNM is working. Look at all the businesses that don’t have good solar resources. And other businesses that can have an asset bringing in income while just sitting on the roof.”

A commercial system pays for itself in 6 to 10 years, Hansen estimates. “But it can be as fast as three or four years. There are no real maintenance costs, and your electricity rates are never going to go up. You just put it up.”

Various solar incentives and grant opportunities can also bring the price down mopre for businesses, including state incentives, federal tax credits, depreciation, USDA Rural Energy for America Program grants and state of Oregon Renewable Energy Development grants.

“It’s good business sense. And now that we have some sizable demonstrations to look at,” like the Co-op project, “we are going to have more businesses moving forward in this direction,” Hansen predicts.

Lorrie Kaplan is chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. She can be reached at ACAPSpotlight@socan.eco.