"Community-based campaigns help residents buy or lease discounted solar energy systems"
Chance Currington with Sunlight Solar Energy in Portland calculates the results for an inspection of a roof for optimum installation of solar panels for a home in Aurora. This project should yield 25-33percent of the homeowners.
Under overcast skies, Patti Jarrett learned she had a nearly ideal roof
for the 3.29-kilowatt solar energy system she planned to lease. South
facing. Good tilt. Little shade.
An hour later, she wrote Sunlight Solar a check to install panels she contends will provide significant energy savings over the next 20 years.
Jarrett, 72, sits on the Growing Solar Clackamas County steering committee and is determined to persuade as many of her neighbors as possible to sign up for solar by April 15.
"Energy conservation is really critical," she said. "We have declining resources and this is such a wonderful resource."
And it's a good time to buy. Imported Chinese panels and cells have driven down prices. And while that's also led to a drop in Energy Trust of Oregon cash incentives for solar, those incentives and state and federal tax credits still help lower the cost considerably. Community-based campaigns like the one in Clackamas make it even less expensive.
These campaigns, where neighbors buy or lease discounted solar energy systems in bulk as part of a limited-time offer, are lighting up the state from Portland to Pendleton. Beaverton just put solar on more than 250 homes. West Linn and Lake Oswego will soon launch a joint campaign. Gresham is gearing up for one, as is Eugene. Northeast Portland is in the midst of its second.
Oregon's first community-initiated "solarize" model started in Portland in 2009 with the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition and Energy Trust of Oregon. Later, Portland took the program on, winning a two-year, $400,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant that expires in June. Additional campaigns in the city's Southeast, Southwest, Northwest, Northeast and North sections helped Portland install a total of 1.5 megawatts of solar -- enough to power 125 homes.
Communities from across the state and nation (including Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Seattle and San Jose) called Portland to learn about replicating the campaigns, prompting the city to create The Solarize Guidebook, a free online resource. Portland also decided to share its federal money, giving seed funding to Growing Solar Clackamas County and Solarize West Linn-Lake Oswego as well as some community organizations in Union County and in the Rogue and Willamette valleys.
"We're proud of our work and for a nominal amount of money we felt we could export our best practices, not just for energy independence but to help grow a green economy," said Lee Rahr, Portland's residential solar program coordinator.
Prices are falling
If your community doesn't have a Solarize-like campaign, competitive pricing makes it a good time to buy. Installing a system has decreased steadily from an average of about $9.50 a watt in 2009 to $5 today, according to Solar Oregon.
Installing a solar-energy system in Portland has also dropped, from an average of $9.50 a watt (before incentives and tax credits) in 2008 to $5.90 a watt today, according to Oregon Energy Trust.
"Even folks who don't participate in the (group buys) will benefit because it's promoting a level of competitiveness in the local solar market," said Eben Polk, senior sustainability analyst with Clackamas County.
Oregon has seen a sharp increase in residential solar, jumping from 152 residential installations in 2008 supported by Energy Trust incentives to 1,201 last year. Part of that had to do with declining prices, more awareness about solar and new leasing options, but credit also goes to group purchase models like the one in Clackamas, said Energy Trust solar program manager Kacia Brockman.
The benefit of community campaigns is that organizers have vetted, chosen and negotiated prices with a solar installation company. Also, informational meetings like the recent one at Rose Villa Retirement Community in Oak Grove help demystify the process.
The Clackamas County steering committee wanted to offer residents made-in-Oregon systems as much as possible, with panels from SolarWorld in Hillsboro and inverters from PV Powered in Bend. They chose two solar installation companies -- Sunlight Solar and LiveLight Energy -- to cover the county.
And, yes, Clackamas County is sunny enough. It has a greater "solar resource" than Berlin and Tokyo, whose countries are global leaders in solar. The clear skies of summer and fall in the Portland area give it 75 percent of its solar gain for the year.
Solar panels perform best when it's sunny and cool, not when it's sunny and hot. The sun's rays hit the photovoltaic panels and the system's inverter turns the direct current into an alternating current, which flows into a home's electrical service panel.
Oregonians in PGE or Pacific Power territory have annualized net metering, so if they're on vacation, the unused electricity flows into the grid and a credit shows up on the electric bill.
LiveLight explained how a Clackamas County homeowner in PGE territory can purchase a $16,744, 3.29-kilowatt system for a net cost of $2,903 after Energy Trust of Oregon cash incentives and state and federal tax credits. Payback takes five to seven years.
But that's if someone buys. Jarrett in Oregon City said leasing or a "power purchase agreement" was the best route for her. She's giving Sunlight Solar $6,000 upfront, but state tax credits pay her back in four years. The power she purchased is worth $300 per year at current electricity rates. If rates continue to rise as expected over the next decade, she'll see significant savings.
Jarrett takes comfort knowing if the leased system malfunctions, she doesn't have to fix it. SunRun, in partnership with Sunlight Solar, will cover any associated costs.
Keep in mind, though, that solar doesn't work for all houses.
Good candidates for solar include homes and properties with south, west or eastern exposure, little shading during the middle of the day and a roof that doesn't need replacing within 10 years.
Using a SunEye, Sunlight Solar made a digital sun chart of the skyline above Jarrett's home, which showed the panels would provide 86 percent of optimal solar performance for the Portland area. Chop down an old, mossed-over tree and she'd get 96 percent. (To take advantage of Energy Trust incentives and state tax credits you need 75 percent of optimal solar for the area.)
So far, 350 residents have signed up for a site assessment with Growing Solar Clackamas County, and if patterns hold true, roughly 20 percent of them (about 70 homeowners) will go solar. That would put the campaign ahead of its goal of 25-40 homeowners.
Will Vinton, the animator who created Claymation, attended the informational meeting. He hopes his Oak Grove property doesn't have too many trees.
"The incentives make it really attractive," he said. "It seems like a great time to do it."