"University of Oregon puts solar to the test"
The solar panels atop the Matthew Knight Arena and Moshofsky Center are part of a project to put solar installations on each of the state’s seven public university campuses. Work on the UO project, with an installed capacity of 1 megawatt, is expected to start later this year and be completed early next year. When the full project is built out, the campuses will have a solar system with a design capacity of almost 6 megawatts of energy. That would make it the largest system in Oregon and among the top five by a university system in the nation, said Bob Simonton, assistant vice chancellor for capital programs for the Oregon University System.
Matthew Knight Arena, seen here, and Moshofsky Center will both sport solar panels as part of an effort to solarize the state's seven public university campuses. Photo by TVA Architects Inc.
By Greg Bolt
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Two of the University of Oregon’s biggest athletic buildings will soon sport new headgear as part of a statewide campus solar energy project.
The solar panels atop the Matthew Knight Arena and Moshofsky Center are part of a project to put solar installations on each of the state’s seven public university campuses. Work on the UO project, with an installed capacity of 1 megawatt, is expected to start later this year and be completed early next year.
When the full project is built out, the campuses will have a solar system with a design capacity of almost 6 megawatts of energy. That would make it the largest system in Oregon and among the top five by a university system in the nation, said Bob Simonton, assistant vice chancellor for capital programs for the Oregon University System.
It’s all part of a demonstration project the OUS is pursuing to test and advance different forms of clean energy production. In addition to the solar project, known as Solar by Degrees, the effort includes a geothermal energy project at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls and a wave energy project at Oregon State University.
One notable aspect of the solar project is that it won’t cost universities anything. REDCO, a Utah-based company specializing in renewable energy, will manage and arrange financing for the project, which is expected to cost just under $30 million.
Also, the first three universities to get solar systems — OIT, OSU and Eastern Oregon University — will be able to buy electricity generated by the solar panels at fixed rates lower than what they currently pay for power, saving an estimated $7 million over the 25-year warranted life of the system. For the UO, REDCO is negotiating with the Eugene Water & Electric Board to buy the power at higher-than-market rates, with the revenue split between the university and the project investors, Simonton said.
The two companies financing the project, MDU Resources and Wells Fargo Bank, will recoup the rest of their investment through federal and state tax credits and incentives, including a $13.5 million credit from the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit. Also, Simonton said the companies providing the solar panels, other equipment and installation all are based in Oregon, which will generate jobs and employment-related tax revenue for the state.
The use of tax credits to finance renewable energy projects has been controversial, particularly the state’s BETC program. The state has scaled back that program over concern that it was too generous and cost the state too much in lost tax revenue.
Simonton said the university system plans to answer questions about those issues by having the demonstration program audited by the state Department of Energy to determine whether it produces net benefits.
“What is the benefit to the state? Why would we want to continue doing this?” Simonton said. “Here’s an opportunity to look at the facts. Does it work or does it not work?”
BacGen Solar Group president Martin Shain, who’s working with REDCO on the installations, said tax credits are needed to make solar work in the Northwest, which has some of the lowest energy costs in the nation. But he said the credits are offset by providing the universities with energy at fixed rates lower than what they otherwise would pay.
“When it comes to public agencies, where the public is on the hook to pay for energy costs anyway, I feel that a tax credit is not such a negative,” he said.
Even with a design capacity of 6 megawatts, the Solar by Degrees project is expected to produce only enough electricity to meet about 3 percent of the total energy needs at the seven OUS campuses. But its effects won’t be spread evenly. OIT, for example, expects to meet all of its energy needs from the geothermal and solar projects combined, perhaps the only university in the world to do so.
For the other campuses, the project will add to their clean energy portfolios and move them closer to a goal of carbon neutrality, a goal many universities across the country have pledged to pursue.
The project has other benefits as well, Simonton said. REDCO will work with the universities to develop classes on renewable energy technology and financing and also will offer internships to two students from each university every year.
The project also includes kiosks at each campus that show how much electricity the system is generating and provide other information. University professors and students will be able to study the systems as part of research aimed at improving the technology.
“It fits perfectly with what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to learn,” Simonton said. “How can we do these projects, demonstrate the technology and have our researchers improve the technology and possibly spin it out and form other companies and do more projects like this?”
The OUS is negotiating 20-year site leases for the solar installations, but the universities will have the option of buying the system outright at market value after six years. The panels, which are made in Oregon, have a 25-year warranty but often continue generating at 80 percent efficiency for more than 40 years, according to project documents.