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Ashland looks for ways to increase local power

In search of more solar power, the city of Ashland is exploring a way to get around the brick wall posed by its BPA contract a couple years ago when the town tried to shrink its carbon footprint by building a large solar farm.

The city had been trying to reach a “10-by-20” goal, meaning a voter-mandated 10% increase in the city’s generation of electricity from “clean, local, renewable” sources by the year 2020. Here we are at 2020. Has the city attained that goal? No.

It ran aground on an old contract with Bonneville Power Administration that said if the city finds power from some other source, it still has to pay for the power that it isn’t going to use — and that rendered the project a no-go for ratepayers, and 10-by-20 was dropped.

But the quest continues for locally generated, clean, renewable power because, they say, it’s the responsible thing to do for the planet. Ashland now is exploring a way around the BPA rule, as cities are allowed to develop locally generated power for emergency functions of city government, said Mayor John Stromberg — and it wouldn’t affect rates charged by BPA.

The highly complex system of our nation’s power, he said, can be vulnerable to sabotage, fire, cyber warfare and already has been hacked by North Korea, Russia and China.

“Look at PG&E and what wildfire did to it,” said Stromberg. “In chaotic situations, we can have local power on hand. BPA allows us to have one megawatt of electric power within the constraints of the contract, though it’s not nearly as big as 10-by-20.”

Stromberg said BPA allows cities to create multiple 200kw generators, and the city is looking at two or three of them, with the issue going to voters in May.

He said the system might be a solar-diesel hybrid, “getting us a lot more electricity generated locally. I think we need to do it. It’s like AFR (Ashland Forest Resiliency), where we’re creating a leading example of new ways to do things. We’ve got a reputation for innovation.

“You’d have the ability to direct limited amounts of power in an emergency to key functions of government, and when it’s not an emergency, you can use it for other parts of government.”

On Monday, Rick Barth, vice chairman of the city’s Climate Planning Commission, delivered its vision to Ashland City Council about potential action steps for coming years — and the possibility of a council declaration of climate emergency, such as has been done by the city of Milwaukie, the first city in Oregon to do it, and others around the country.

Councilor Tonya Graham, council liaison to the Climate Planning Commission and executive director of Geos Institute, said if you declare a climate emergency, you are expected to go up to “the next level,” and Ashland has been doing that for a long time.

Mayor John Stromberg said he’s being asked to make such emergency declarations over mental health and homelessness, and they imply a much deeper commitment and expense.

The scores of “asks” from CPC include folding climate priorities and costs into the budget process, hiring only climate-savvy personnel, building a public website to track climate progress, engaging stakeholders to see if they agree with asks, looking at the wastewater treatment plant as a “target of opportunity,” and phasing out fossil fuels, especially two-cycle engines, in landscaping.

The CPC oversees and updates the Climate Energy Action Plan. Stromberg, in an interview, emphasized that CPC is just starting to coordinate with the council, and its “asks” are not yet moving toward reality nor are they OK yet with the council.

City Administrator Kelly Madding said, “I want to make sure staff is involved in meaningful ways, and we don’t want people going out and starting policies that don’t work.”

“Barth was very cautious about putting forth a bunch of fairly dramatic steps to mitigate our use of carbon-based fuels,” said Stromberg. “They recommend 65 steps, but their job is to advise us, not advocate policy issues. We’re just starting to get on the same page.”

Stromberg noted the process includes both “adaptation” to a warmer world and “mitigation,” that is, “stop causing the negative effects, which come from how we are dependent on and habituated to fossil fuels, especially home heating and cooking.

“Do we prohibit stuff, give incentives, or do it through regulation? It’s one thing to be supportive of the whole effort on an abstract level, but it has to be brought together in our daily lives.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen said, “We’re not considering banning anything and don’t want to let that language get out.”

In an interview, Barth said the city routinely signed “reasonable” new contracts with BPA, but “electric power has changed dramatically, and I certainly hope we can get a different contract in 2025, giving the city more flexibility.”

CPC works through three subgroups — utilities, including the water master plan, gas-electric, and, third, the built environment, including buildings, transportation, gas appliances, and small engines that use fossil fuels. Barth said upcoming meetings with city heads and councilors will give direction on how to engage the public, and if they want to approve CPC’s goals in detail, or, as Barth wishes, get on the same page and then have “free rein.”

“We’re way ahead of Milwaukie (with its emergency climate declaration). Some cities are more advanced than us and others haven’t even started. Every city has to do its part. If no one does, then we’re in trouble. Ashland’s done a good job on the environmental front and climate. In five years, we should have started serious work on the energy plan. The goal is to reduce greenhouse emissions and adapt to the emissions that have already occurred.”