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Ashland tech developer embraces the sun

Jeff Sharpe’s renewable energy creation is a large, free-standing, 20-panel, 8.5-kilowatt Solar Tracker, programmed to follow the sun all day, catching all possible sun rays while cutting half its costs with rebates and tax credits.

One of the futuristic-looking devices sits at the end of Glendower Street in Ashland, where it silently adjusts itself every seven minutes, using GPS and its internal algorithm to keep it “orthagonally” (at a 90-degree angle to the sun’s rays) on track.

“I love it. I live comfortably, summer and winter, cooling and heating and have a lot of power to send back to the grid,” says the owner, Karen, who asked that her last name not be published. “It had an 86 kilowatt-hour day the other day. It creates 168 kilowatt-hours a month and what I don’t use goes back to the city grid.”

Her city power bill now is $11 a month, just administrative expenses, she says, and the system should pay for itself in two years. The 30-foot-tall, 2-ton device costs $45,000 while a backup battery, for outages, is another $15,000.

Half the cost was covered by a 30 percent federal tax credit, a $6,000 state residential energy tax credit (now expired) and a city rebate of $4,200.

“Isn’t it a magnificent sculpture?” crows Sharpe. “She’s helping to drive renewable energy and normalize it in Ashland.”

The system has drawn many “wows” — and one complaint from a neighbor, who felt it was a view-blocker, says Karen.

Through his Ashland-based Sharpe Energy Solutions, Sharpe created the Solar Tracker from mostly existing technology, though he did invent and patent many components, including the tracker drive core that makes the array rotate.

It’s the only product he makes and he sees the system as having a great future globally. However, he’s a designer-builder and is looking for some creative, ambitious types to take on his new marketing-servicing Stracker Inc. to do that part of it.

The Solar Trackers are not designed for rooftops of houses and buildings. They do best in parking lots, fields, schools and open, recreational spots, such as Michelle Field or the city Wastewater Treatment Plant, both immediately behind the Glendower array. He is proposing such arrays to the city of Ashland and also a giant array across the freeway.

“If they’re in a parking lot, it doesn’t displace its use. It’s still a parking lot,” says Sharpe. They can be placed where they’re not shaded by bigger, older trees and, he notes, you don’t need an east-west ridge line to increase sun access.

You might suspect a 20-by-26-foot array would be vulnerable to high winds, but Sharpe figured that out, too. If an anemometer on top of the device detects winds of more than 30 mph it “stows” the array flat, presenting almost no resistance to winds.

Two of the systems have been erected in Ashland and four in Siskiyou County. Three solar firms work on the systems: Sharpe/Stracker, Alternative Energy Systems for the inverter and electrical work and Willpower Electric in Medford for the battery storage systems.

His company incorporated in 2009 and has done consulting and project management for more than 60 elementary schools in the Roseburg-to-Redding region. His website, sharpenergy.net, notes that the company has also had contracts with the Oregon Department of Energy and Energy Trust of Oregon.

Karen said she bought the system (which also shades her back patio) as a hedge against electricity price increases.

“There isn’t enough wind here so I rejected that,” she said. “My neighbor’s trees and also my trees cast too much shade for fixed solar panels, plus I just feel really good about this. I feel I’m helping the planet.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Andy Atkinson / Daily TidingsJeff Sharpe stands beneath a large solar array at a home on Glendower Street in Ashland.