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Community solar installation in Talent a first in the state

123rf.com

Oregon’s first participant-owned solar array sits atop the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production building in Talent. The installation is just awaiting a switch before it can begin putting energy into the electric grid and providing energy credits for the owners.

“It allows for community members to pool their resources to build a project from which each can partake,” said Ray Sanchez-Pescador, president of SolarizeRogue, which pursued the $300,000 project.

Previously Oregonians participated in solar with installations on their own homes, by investing in solar projects or subscribing for solar delivered by energy firms. The project allows community members to own their own power-generating equipment if solar panels can’t be on their roof tops.

The installation can provide 141 kilowatts of power for 16 participants, including homeowners, five renters and three low-income families in the Rogue Valley. Owners are located in Medford, Talent, Eagle Point, Gold Hill, Rogue River and the Greensprings. One owner whose home is located in the mountains with high energy requirements in the winter purchased 88 panels.

Homeowners may not be able to do solar installations for several reasons, including trees that would block sunlight and roof space that lacks the proper alignment to allow for solar generation. Renters do not own the roof over their heads so cannot install solar.

In 2015, the Legislature passed laws that allowed the creation of jointly owned solar installations, but rules and guidelines for them were not created by the Public Utilities Commission until late 2019.

When SolarizeRogue approached Pacific Power about the project in early 2020, the utility said there were two obstacles. It didn’t have the billing software needed to split out the individual credits for solar generation and apply them against customers’ bills, and laws prohibited the sale of such power once it crossed a property line. The utility developed the software, and the legal issues were resolved.

SolarizeRogue initially hoped to do an array capable of generating 60 kilowatts, but would have settled for the minimum setup of 25 kilowatts. Meetings held on Zoom drew as many as 70 interested homeowners.

“In about four weeks we ran out of roof space. We had to stop registration,” said Sanchez-Pescador. The project covers about 10,000 square feet and has 362 panels.

SolarizeRogue oversaw most of the installation with assistance from the Oregon Clean Power Co-op. True South Solar of Ashland installed the array. OCPC has been hired to be to be project manager going forward.

“The strength of that approach is that people can essentially put solar somewhere else rather than putting it on the roof of their house,” said Dan Orzech, general manager of OCPC. “(It) … resonated with people because there is an emotional connection to look at something that you actually own.”

OSF has its own solar project on the roof and leases the space to the community program. Additional space is available, but the festival is retaining that for future solar installations to help supply its own needs.

Most homeowners are hoping to gain 80% to 90% of their electrical energy from the solar generation. Payback on the investment will come after 11 years, and the panels have a projected life of 25 years.

An average homeowner would need to install enough panels to generate about five kilowatts at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 to supply a major portion of electrical needs, said Sanchez-Pescador. Because of the project’s larger scale, the outlay for many investors in the SolarizeRogue project is about half of that amount, Sanchez-Pescador said.

State law provides that 10% of the power generated will be made available to low- to moderate-income households for energy assistance. The lower-income households, selected by Rogue Climate, will receive a 20% reduction on their power bills.

Sanchez-Pescador is also a project investor. He had solar panels installed on his Rapp Road home in 2017 to help supply the energy, but an electric radiant-heated floor consumes large amounts and he wanted to get even more of that from solar. The installation he did in 2017 is rated at 8.6 kilowatts.

A federal income tax credit of 26% of the amount spent on the solar installation is available to individuals who have a tax liability.

OCPC announced plans for three solar installations in Talent in fall 2019. Those are at the festival production building, at the city of Talent’s Civic Center, and at Jackson County Fire District No. 5 headquarters just north of city limits.

The festival setup was scheduled to begin producing energy last week, said Orzech. Work should begin on the solar installations for the city and the fire district in the near future. The pandemic, then the Almeda fire, has delayed what would have normally been quicker timelines. The three projects were financed in a more traditional method with investors purchasing bonds.

Information on SolarizeRogue can be found at solarizerogue.org. OCPC’s website is oregoncleanpower.coop.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwiter@gmail.com.