What’s Up With Community Solar?

By Dan Orzech - General Manager at Oregon Clean Power Coop

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The Oregon Clean Power Co-op’s project at Corvallis High School, financed by Oregon residents, was installed in 2018.

Oregon is abuzz with anticipation of Community Solar. But is it here? And what is it, exactly?

The term “Community Solar” is confusing, because it’s one of those terms that’s so broad that it covers lots of different things.

Most simply, community solar is putting solar on someone else’s roof. Why would you do that? Why not just put it on your own roof?

You might not be able to put it on your own roof — because you rent, so you don’t own your roof. Or, like lots of Oregonians, you might own your roof, but you’ve got too much shade. And who wants to cut down trees to put up solar? Or you might already have solar on your roof, and you want to do more.

There are three varieties of community solar in Oregon available today or — we hope — soon. They are:

1) The Oregon Clean Power Cooperative’s community-owned, or co-op solar projects. These connect to buildings, with the solar panels going on the roof or ground nearby, and have been installed on nonprofits, churches, libraries, schools, fire stations and local government buildings.

Any Oregon resident can participate by investing in the Co-op, with a minimum $1,000 investment, which is paid back with interest. Because the solar panels connect directly to the building, most Co-op projects are now incorporating batteries, which both let you use solar power after the sun goes down, and provide critical emergency backup if the grid fails after a natural disaster. Solar and battery installations proven themselves invaluable after Hurricane Irma, the California Wine Country fires of 2018, and other recent natural disasters.

And since renewable energy can come from other sources besides solar, the Co-op is actively looking for projects using micro-hydro, small wind as well as bio-gas digesters, which turn food or brewery waste into electricity and fertilizer.

2) A handful of Oregon’s consumer-owned utilities have small community solar projects for their members. These COUs, as they’re called, provide power to roughly a third of Oregonians. They include municipal utilities like those in Ashland and Eugene, People’s Utility Districts like those serving The Dalles and much of the Oregon coast, and the rural electric cooperatives, which provide power not only in rural Oregon but to parts of Bend, Corvallis and other towns.

All these utilities get most of their power from the Bonneville Power Administration. It’s not easy for solar in Oregon to compete financially with the cheap power from BPA’s dams on the Columbia, so only a few community solar projects have been built.

3) SB 1547 Community Solar

This long-awaited program — established by the Oregon Legislature in 2016 — should finally roll out sometime in the next year or so. Modeled on programs that have been running successfully for years in Colorado, Minnesota and elsewhere, the solar will connect directly to the grid, and will most often be installed in a larger, solar farm. Customers of Oregon’s three investor-owned utilities — PGE, Pacific Power and Idaho Power — will be able to subscribe to the power from solar projects in their utility’s territory, and get a credit on their bill for that power. They’ll be able to subscribe to as much power as they use in their home or business.

The utility serves as a sort of middle-man in the program, taking the power the community solar projects produce, and passing on payments for that power from consumers to the owners of the solar projects.

Who can own a project? Pretty much anyone in Oregon, including individuals, communities, nonprofits and businesses. The Oregon Clean Power Co-op has several projects in the works, as do a few intrepid individuals and small community groups. Most projects, however, will be offered by larger, established solar developers… or the utilities. Both PGE and Pacific Power have offerings in the works for their customers.

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A four-legged resident of Central Oregon doesn’t mind moving to the next field over to make room for one of the Oregon Clean Power Co-op’s future SB 1547 Community Solar projects. This project, located outside of Madras, will be available to any customer of Pacific Power.

While the Oregon PUC recently announced the hiring of company to serve as program administrator, there are lots of unknowns still, starting with when it will roll out, and what rate solar projects will receive. That means we don’t know yet if you’ll be able to subscribe to a community solar project for less than what you’re paying now, or if you’ll pay more for the privilege of supporting green power. Stay tuned!

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