Fourth-generation Wallowa County resident Louis Perry and a group of progressive thinkers have joined together to try and find a new source for jobs and vibrancy in this economically depressed region. Perry is pursuing business opportunities in the renewable energy industry in a market made viable in part from the help of federal incentive programs.
“This is an exciting sector to be in and is a bright spot in a fairly economically depressed area,” Perry said. Perry has two solar energy projects underway in Wallowa County as well several other projects throughout the region.
As an incentive for the development of solar energy production, Oregon legislators have mandated that the investor-owned utilities in the state pay a higher rate for power generated through solar systems. Under the alternative energy program, Pacific Power and Light, Pacific Gas and Electric and Idaho Power are forced to pay a higher price for energy produced by solar systems. This premium stands currently at between 30 and 50 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, the utility companies pay about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity generated by hydrologic systems.
The premium paid by the utility companies for the harnessed solar energy is considered an added cost of doing business, a cost absorbed by the ratepayer, according to Perry. The power companies get to claim the environmental attributes of the solar projects by claiming Carbon Credits and through the Renewable Energy Benefit.
One of Perry’s companies, Renewable Energy Constructors, is developing two solar energy projects in the Joseph area. The first project ties into the City of Joseph sewer plant and the other is a solar array system that generates power to sell to Pacific Power and Light. Perry takes the role of lead manager and owner of both projects under another of his companies called Joseph Community Solar.
The Joseph sewage system consumes about 200,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, mostly to run several pumps and grinders. Perry plans to install a solar generator at the Joseph sewage plant and expects the newly installed system to produce 180,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. The solar energy production and government incentive program tied to the public utility would cut power costs to run the sewer system by up to 90 percent, saving the City of Joseph of about $12,000 yearly, Perry said.
Perry’s company Joseph Community Solar plans to install, maintain and take ownership of the equipment at the sewage plant and has a 15-year agreement with the city. And, while the city benefits by saving up to 90-percent on retail energy costs, Perry receives an incentive from the utility company to help pay for his investment in the system. At the end of the 15-year agreement, the city has an option of purchasing the equipment, or may continue to purchase power from Perry at a discounted rate over traditionally produced electricity.
Several federal and state incentive programs encourage development of solar energy production facilities. Perry is using the Federal Investment Tax Credit to pay for 30 percent of construction costs on both projects. Money authorized through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the subsequent Jobs Bill passed by congress in 2010 enable Perry to take the incentive in grant dollars rather than through a tax credit.
Perry’s second project is targeted for construction on his private land east of Joseph. He has submitted a proposal to the county planning department for the construction of a solar array system capable of generating 1 million kilowatt-hours annually. The average household uses about 12,000 kilowatt-hours per year, according to Perry.
“This is among the largest projects in the region and may be the largest,” he said.
Perry explained the benefits and limitations of solar energy systems. “Solar is good because it’s production matches the hours of peak demand on the electrical grid. But, because it can only be generated during the day, it can’t be used as a single source of power.” he said.
Perry’s companies also have projects underway in the growing Boise area. “Idaho Power is very interested in solar projects because it matches peak demand,” he said. He explained that solar energy production peaks during the sunny days of summer, when the demand for power is greatest.
Many of the ideas and plans Perry has utilized came through collaboration and brainstorming through his association with companies in the Wallowa Resources Stewardship Building in Enterprise. The building houses the non-profit Wallowa Resources and the organization’s for-profit arm, Community Solutions, Inc., Renewable Energy Solutions, Energy Trust of Oregon, the Portland-based legal firm Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt, and another of Perry’s companies, Sun Storage.
The various groups, along with private companies such as Perry’s, consult one another and share a common goal of expanding the local job market while providing alternative sources of energy.
“Louis’s projects are independent, but the brainstorming on these type of projects are part of the benefit of all of us being in this same building,” said executive director of Wallowa Resources Nils Christoffersen.
“We all bring different networks and different perspectives to generate jobs in the community. Louis’s projects are in part a result of this collective and our partnership with the Energy Trust of Oregon,” Christoffersen said.