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Solar highway pushed back a year … but it’s still on track

Construction won't begin until at least 2011, putting the project a year behind schedule

Solar highway pushed back a year … but it’s still on track

A computer rendering shows what a proposed solar installation along Interstate 205 would look like from Salamo Road. The West Linn Tidings

The good news for opponents of a utility-scale solar-energy facility proposed in West Linn: Construction won’t begin until at least 2011, putting the project a year behind schedule.

The delay was one development to emerge at last week’s meeting of the Barrington Heights, Hidden Creek Estates and Tanner Woods Neighborhood Association.

But despite the setback — officials initially hoped to break ground this spring — other news was less welcome to opponents of the project.

Lynn Averbeck of the Oregon Department of Transportation, the agency spearheading the project, said her office is nearly finished with a $220,000 feasibility study of the site.

If eventually approved by a state commission, the field of solar panels would stretch about 2,000 feet across a benched hillside on state-owned land near an old, unused rest area off Interstate 205. Now a stockpile site for heavy-duty highway equipment and supplies, the site sits on the freeway’s north side, north of the 10th Street exit in West Linn.

“It does look suitable,” said Averbeck, project director in ODOT’s Office of Innovative Partnerships and Alternative Funding. “We haven’t found any fatal flaws.”

Energy produced with sunlight during the day would feed into the existing electric grid, allowing ODOT to draw out the same amount to power freeway lights at night.

The roadside linear array could generate up to 3 megawatts of energy each year, about one-sixth of what ODOT uses in the area. It would be the largest installation of its kind in the world.

Opponents worry about fire, safety and health risks

Although the solar highway garnered early support from many citizens touting the use of renewable energy, many others have continued to express concerns they’ve had since the project was proposed last summer.

For the past eight months, they’ve called attention to potential fire hazards, health and safety issues, as well as the impact on their river views and property values. The proposed solar site sits below a ridge of high-priced homes on Riverknoll Way and is within view of Oregon City residents across the Willamette River.

The rest area just northeast closed years ago out of concern for public safety, said Bill Weber, who lives in the Barrington Heights area. He’s especially worried about the city’s plan to build a trail near the solar panels — a separate proposal that aims to take advantage of public funding while meeting a broader goal of connecting trails throughout West Linn.

Steve Garner, BHT neighborhood president, was disappointed the state won’t “mitigate against” the city’s planned trail, which has complicated the solar highway’s approval process.

He also railed against ODOT’s plan to use tax credits. By partnering with a company such as Portland General Electric, ODOT’s $20 million project could take advantage of Oregon’s Business Energy Tax Credits, an incentive program that has drawn criticism in the past year.

Although the West Linn proposal is precertified for the credits, the scheduling holdup stems from a review of the generous subsidies, which have reduced state revenue by far more than initially anticipated.

“Financially, this is just a boondoggle,” Garner said.

Additional concerns are gaining prominence as scientists attempt to better document the health impacts of electromagnetic fields, such as those radiating from solar arrays. West Linn’s solar highway would include thousands of photovoltaic panels as well as inverters that convert direct current into alternating current for transmission to the electric grid. The solar cells wouldn’t produce a power frequency field, but inverters and connections to the grid would.

Some residents fear controversial link to cancer from electromagnetic fields

Barrington Drive resident Kuo Chang is worried about health risks associated with such electromagnetic fields.

A doctor and director of the Asthma Allergy Centre and Asthma Allergy Centre Research Group and past clinical associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, Chang’s alarm grew following ODOT’s recent release of a report assuaging health concerns.

Produced by the Good Company of Eugene for ODOT’s solar highway project, the study concluded the proposal in West Linn wouldn’t cause health problems, because the resulting electromagnetic fields would be “indistinguishable from background levels produced by other human and natural sources at the perimeter of the site’s security fence and therefore are not a concern to public health for neighboring residences.”

But Chang wonders how solar supporters can be so certain when scientists aren’t that confident in available data. Research hasn’t demonstrated a direct link to disease, but it hasn’t proven electric fields are safe, either.

Today, international cancer researchers classify electromagnetic fields as possible carcinogens, meaning they are suspected of causing or increasing a person’s risk of developing cancer. Yet the link remains a controversial one.

The World Health Organization notes that epidemiological studies point to “small increases in risk of childhood leukemia with exposure to low frequency magnetic fields in the home.” But scientists generally have not concluded that exposure to the fields causes disease. Large-scale studies now underway could help solve some of the questions, according to the health organization.

And while the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, a body of independent scientific experts, has not called for an immediate revision of its exposure guidelines for magnetic fields, the group has issued a statement recognizing the need for a long-term update to the guidelines because of new research published in the past few years.

Some of the latest information focuses on electric fields associated with high-frequency transient or “dirty” power, a byproduct of everyday appliances like computer monitors and TVs and energy-efficient devices like compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Chang points to a 2008 report by epidemiologist Samuel Milham, who found particularly strong transients at a California school where teachers experienced an unusually high incidence of cancer.

In the end, Milham’s study showed that ongoing exposure to transients at the school increased teachers’ cancer risk by almost 64 percent. Working there for a single year raised their risk of developing cancer by 21 percent. The likely culprit: electric fields radiating from the transients coming off power cords and the electrical equipment attached to those power cords.

Transients can also back up along electrical wiring, spreading electromagnetic pollution to other consumers along the electric grid, according to Milham’s research.

Chang wonders what that means for the solar highway in West Linn.

“It’s not just people living around Riverknoll Way,” Chang said. “Can the City of West Linn go ahead and do it and ignore these risks?”

Feasibility study results available March 12

Averbeck, the project manager at ODOT, watched a presentation by Chang at last week’s neighborhood meeting. She said she’s confident residents’ concerns can be addressed.

The next step is finishing the feasibility analysis of the site. Results will be posted online March 12 at , according to ODOT. The agency will likely hold a public open house in West Linn near the end of March.

Averbeck said only after the site study is completed, the project is approved and funding is secured can the state move ahead with the project.



State asks neighbors to care for five-acre ‘fire hazard’


Regardless of what happens with a solar installation proposed to generate electricity by day to light the freeway at night, West Linn residents nearest the site are being asked to take more responsibility for the land skirting their backyards.

Of 18 acres above the proposed installation, about five are in a flat, “very passive area,” ODOT district manager Ron Kroop told Barrington Heights residents at their February meeting.

Those five acres of “excess” public right of way could be restored with native oak trees or landscaped and maintained as stakeholders see fit, so long as an agreement is in place.

Kroop didn’t push for an immediate decision but asked residents to eventually provide a collective vision of sorts for the property.

If they don’t want to manage it themselves, he said ODOT could instead sign an agreement with a nonprofit organization to maintain the land.

“With or without a solar project, I do believe there’s merit and need for some small group to address what I think I hear loud and clear: the fire hazard,” Kroop said.

The state lacks resources to actively manage the property, clearing it of invasive species and watering dry patches in summer months.

An area homeowners association has paid to mow grass behind residents’ homes for almost 20 years.

Resident Tod Tolan said the public property gets “tinder dry” in the late summer months.

His wife, Margaret Tolan, said that was a problem in July 2003, when mowing equipment far below the homes sparked a fire that raced up toward the neighborhood.

“We really dodged a bullet; the wind was with us that day,” she said. “Otherwise, the fire marshal said, seven, eight or nine homes would have been gone.”

A homeowner who recently cut down fire trees on ODOT’s property cited the potential fire hazard to his home.

There’s another option for managing the land aside from residents’ taking a more active role or a nonprofit helping out.

The most expensive and time-consuming possibility involves declaring the land “surplus” property and selling it.

Kroop included a disclaimer of sorts when presenting this option: “It would give you control of what happens there because you’d own that area, but it wouldn’t necessarily make the (solar highway) project stop.”

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