Two thousand, nine hundred and seventy. That’s the number of solar panels planned for Fleet Development’s upcoming five acre community solar power farm on Green Hill, just south of downtown Wallowa. Construction of the 860 KW power-generating facility, first planned for this fall, is now slated for summer, 2020.
At public hearings in February, local residents expressed concerns that the panels could be a reflective, unnatural eyesore that compromised the beauty of a prized, scenic hillside. In deference to those concerns, Ryan Sheehy, Fleet’s CEO, is working with local landscapers to design plantings that will screen the panels from view. “It will just be a treed pasture that is quietly pumping out power for Wallowa County,” he said.
Sheehy grew up in Wallowa as a third generation Wallowa Countian. After a 20 year career in the U.S. Marine Corps, he brought his family home. While working with Viridian Property Management in Enterprise, he realized that there was an opportunity to connect multi-family affordable housing with solar power. In 2018 he partnered with Doug Chrisman to start Fleet Development. They chose the Green Hill site in Wallowa because it was convenient to a Pacific Power substation, where the energy from the solar panels will flow into the grid. It didn’t hurt that Sheehy had gone to high school with the property owner.
Fleet Development’s solar facility will produce power for low-income multi-family housing units in Wallowa County and beyond through community solar power subscriptions. No housing will be built on Green Hill. “The power from these panels will go to tenants in multifamily housing maybe in Enterprise or somewhere else.” Sheehy said. “Tenants can opt into solar power on their electric bill. It doesn’t mean the energy in their wires will come from this facility, but it very likely will.”
The community solar option is new in Oregon, established by Senate Bill 1547, passed in 2016. The bill’s dual intent was to eliminate coal generating power plants and establish renewable energy as Oregon’s dominant power source. The bill stipulates that 10% of the total generating capacity of community solar projects be made available to low-income residential customers. “Up until now,” Sheehy said, “the only people who could afford to put solar power on their roofs have been in higher income brackets. So the tax incentive program has only been helping wealthier people. If you are a tenant and you want to use solar power, you’ve never been able to because you don’t own the roof, community solar is a great way for the rest of us to use solar power.”
While the multi-family units won’t be directly plugged into rooftop solar panels, residents can sign up for solar power on their Pacific Power electric bill, Sheehy noted. The advantages include both green power and lowering costs. “Solar power costs are dropping as panels become more efficient and easier to produce,” he said. New technologies include panels that generate power from front and back, new materials such as the iron-rich mineral perovskite solar cells that generate 20% more power, and technologies that capitalize on the heat generated in solar panels to produce even more electricity. “We see no need to raise rates. Once the system is paid off we will be able to actually lower costs.”
Fleet Development’s lease on the Green Hill property may last for up to 20 years. By then, there may be newer and even more efficient green energy sources. If and when the project ends, it can be completely removed and recycled, Sheehy said. “We are farming solar power. But there will be no permanent change to the site,” he said. “When we are done, we can take it down, recycle everything, and no-one will know it was there.”