"A look into Oregon's Solar Incentive Pilot Program"
KOIN 6 News
MARION COUNTY, Ore. - The sky is bright grey; the kind in September that looks like it’s going to clear out if you would just wish hard enough. Jeff and Sandy Ramp are moving about harvesting vegetables in their large backyard garden. In the distance, the plowed 30 acres of their onion farm await harvest next month. This is the kind of scene you could have seen decades or even centuries ago in this very same spot where Jeff Ramp’s family settled in 1853—before Oregon was even a state.
Their farm house now looks anything but, a modern construction with wide windows facing south to make use of all the sun has to offer in terms of light and heat for even our darkest months here in the Northwest. Their small farm Jeff’s pioneering ancestors never would have dreamed possible, ways to collect the radiation from the sun and use it to make electricity. One outbuilding near their modest and comfortable home has an entire roof covered in solar panels. 44 of them facing south gathering all the light an Oregon fall day can offer in the Willamette Valley.
“It’s good for the environment,” says Jeff Ramp hovering over his cucumber patch. “It’s very satisfying.”
The Ramps are themselves, pioneers. They’re the first household in the state to take part in Oregon’s Solar Incentive Pilot program.
“I like the fact that it's helping the environment and we're more self sufficient because of it,” says Sandy Ramp.
Unlike traditional incentives that relied on state grants and taxpayer dollars—this program is paid for by the utilities themselves. In 1999, many utilities had to develop a plan to begin phasing in getting a percentage of their power from renewable sources. It’s a modified version of what’s known in the industry as a feed-in tariff program. This means if you feed into the electricity grid—the utility will pay you premium bucks to do so.
“It’s a 15 year contract for PGE to buy back power,” says Jeff Ramp. “So I should possibly make a few dollars the last five years.”
While normal households pay on average 13 cents a kilowatt hour for power. The Ramps have their power purchased for 65 cents a kilowatt hour. The difference means their 63 thousand dollar large solar array will pay for itself in roughly eight years instead of the 12-15 it takes for the average homeowner under other incentive plans to reach that important “payback” milestone. As this pilot program continues, the incentives are expected to diminish as the five year project continues. And the upfront costs of more than 60 thousand dollars isn’t one that the Ramps have to bear on their own, the federal government offers tax credit rebates as much as 30% of the total purchase price of their solar system.
“Now they have a way to make solar make sense and pencil out for them—and families and businesses like them,” say Kim Berhorst. “The Ramps are going to get paid a lot faster with this type of program. It makes a lot more sense to buy solar than to let that money sit in a CD or a traditional stock.”
She’s with National Solar and helped design and plan the Ramp’s solar system. She also says the large solar installment at the Ramp’s farm meant good paying jobs for 16 people. If we made better use of the relevant rooftops in the state we’d create even better paying green collar jobs for Oregon. The state already has what are considered the most generous incentives in the state. Incentives that are widely believed to have brought green companies like wind companies Vestas, Iberdrola to Portland and Solar World to suburban Portland.
“You take a look at Germany,” points out Kim Berhorst, “they’re one of the biggest solar users in the world now. Their feed-in tariff policies have created 285-thousand green jobs.” Berhorst’s only complaint with the five year pilot program is that it’s not a true feed-in tariff program. The Ramps are capped at buying enough solar panels to power 90% of their domestic needs. If it were a true feed-in tariff program—they could buy solar panels for every available south facing roof and then be what Berhorst calls “solar farmers”. She says that’s more likely after this program runs its course and proves that it will create jobs for the state. Already she says her employer, National Solar, does 99 percent of its business now in Oregon, while it is based in Seattle, Washington.
If you’re wondering why solar power can work in cloudy Oregon, you’re not alone. Berhorst with National Solar says photo voltaic solar panels work better in cooler temperatures than say sunny Arizona. And solar panels efficiency are calculated on what’s called solar hours. Willamette Valley summers are very sunny for several months continuously. That’s why western Oregon gets as much sunshine as parts of Florida, due to the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms in the Sunshine State.
For Jeff Ramp, he’s happy to be a pioneer in the same spot his ancestors staked their claim in what is now Marion County, Oregon in the 1800s. He says their outlay for the solar panels was an investment in not only their energy security and property value-- but their retirement bottom-line and even in the environment itself.
“I would call it a decent investment,” he says and smiles.