"Solar-power program expanding to North and Northwest Portland"
Portland's pioneering community solar-power program is coming to North and Northwest Portland, giving residents there the chance to install home solar electric systems at a steeply discounted rate. Two neighborhood coalitions -- North Portland Community Services and Neighbors West-Northwest -- are organizing the program, which lets residents join to purchase home solar-power systems as a group, netting wholesale prices. Additional tax credits and a cash-incentive program help bring down costs even more.
Leland Baxter-Neal, Special to The Oregonian
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Portland's pioneering community solar-power program is coming to North and Northwest Portland, giving residents there the chance to install home solar electric systems at a steeply discounted rate.
Two neighborhood coalitions -- North Portland Community Services and Neighbors West-Northwest -- are organizing the program, which lets residents join to purchase home solar-power systems as a group, netting wholesale prices. Additional tax credits and a cash-incentive program help bring down costs even more.
The program, called Solarize Portland, already has swept through Southeast, Southwest and Northeast Portland, resulting in a surge of new residential solar systems across the city. In 2008, only 38 homes in Portland installed photovoltaic solar panels. In 2010 alone, 453 residential solar systems were installed through the program, said Lee Rahr, the city's residential solar program coordinator.
"I've been working on solar energy for four years," Rahr said. "What's different about this is that it's community led, community initiated, community run. It's really the grass roots that are magic. It gets people excited, and they get behind it."
The program's success has inspired other cities across the nation, and Rahr has advised organizers in Pendleton, Salem, Seattle, San Jose and Minneapolis on how to run their own community-led, collective solar initiatives. In addition, she is working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Energy Trust of Oregon on a guidebook for replicating the Solarize model for governments, neighborhood activists and community groups.
For the upcoming Solarize programs in Portland, the neighborhood coalitions in North and Northwest Portland are reviewing bids from potential contractors. The two coalitions worked together on the request for proposals, which went out for contractors to review and bid on in December, but each will choose its own contractor to install the systems.
Registration for the program will be open through March for both North and Northwest Portland, and the installations on qualifying homes will begin as summer approaches and the weather improves.
"We expect that there will probably be around 2,000 people that come and look at our website and say they're interested, and we will probably have 300 installations," said Alison Wallisch, who is coordinating Solarize Northwest for Neighbors West-Northwest.
Launched by a group of residents from Southwest Portland in 2009, the program helps homeowners get up to speed on how solar power works and navigate getting it installed. With help from Rahr and the city's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the neighborhood associations hold workshops covering topics such as the tax credits that eventually will cut costs -- by more than half, in many cases.
"We're finding that the installation price for the volume-purchasing model usually comes in around $6 a watt, and we are seeing people install between 2,000 and 3,000 watts of energy," Rahr said. "A 2,000-watt system at $6 a watt has an installed cost of $12,000. After the tax credits and cash incentives, it comes to just over $1,700."
However, not all homes will qualify for the program. The roof where the installation is planned must be in good condition, have the correct slope and orientation, and be clear of enough shade to catch the bulk of the sun's rays during any given day.
"For Solarize Southwest, we went to 700 houses in order to do 150 installations," said John Patterson, owner of Mr. Sun Solar, the contractor hired for the 2010 Solarize Southwest program. "One third had too many trees, and one third didn't have the money."
Though the tax credits can add up to thousands of dollars for an average system, they often take years to come back to the homeowner, Patterson said, meaning homeowners must be able to pony up a higher price at the beginning of the project.
As for Portland's reputation for rain and clouds, Rahr said the city actually is on par with most of the rest of the nation when it comes to sun.
"Oregon receives 75 percent of its sunshine from June through October," Rahr said. "It's hard for us to believe, but our summers have this amazing sunshine and we don't get the thunderstorms or cloud cover like the Midwest or the South."
To help even out the benefits of solar power through the year, systems installed through the program have "net metering," which allows homeowners to earn a credit when they produced more power with their panels than they consume. That carries over month to month.
Don and Gaile Baack, who had a solar hot-water system in the 1980s, used the Solarize Southwest program this summer to have a 2,800-watt solar-power system installed to deliver electricity to their Southwest Portland home.
"We've had interest for a long time," Gaile Baack said.
The couple tightened up their home's energy efficiency by improving insulation, testing for air leaks and increasing the efficiency of their oil furnace and home appliances, so the photovoltaic system is expected to cover about half the electricity they use per year, Don Baack said. The system cost about $12,500 upfront, but their federal and state tax credits add up to more than $9,500 during the next four years, bringing the final to slightly more than $2,500, he said.
Though spurred by the program's economic incentives, the couple said they ultimately chose solar power for moral reasons.
"I think we're contributing to the betterment of our society and the Earth," Gaile Baack said.