Two northeastern Oregon solar power projects, one in Wallowa and the other in La Grande, have been awarded a total of $340,000 in grants to bring solar power to affordable housing. They were among only six recipients statewide of Oregon Department of Energy awards totaling $1.25 million. Fleet Development was the awardee of both local grants, which fund solar power for affordable housing. Funds are part of ODOE’s Renewable Energy Development Grant (RED) fund. The program was launched in 2012, and this year marks the eighth and final round of funding.
Large projects that produce more than 300 kilowatts were considered separately from smaller ones so that more opportunities for funding could occur, according to ODOE Public Affairs & Outreach Coordinator Jennifer Kalez. The Wallowa project generates 860 kw; the La Grande project is somewhat smaller.
“Applications were scored based on a number of criteria, including amount of energy generated, job creation, community benefits and more,” a press release from ODOE said. “Points were also awarded for projects that were designed with resilience in mind.”
In Union County:
Union County Solar LLC received $90,00 to help complete the project in La Grande. The funds will be released once the project is completed and after a review determines all conditions of the performance agreement have been met.
La Grande’s project is to install rooftop solar panels on three low-income properties, all of which are managed by Viridian Management Company. The first property, the La Grande Retirement Apartments complex, has already been completed, and work on the Thunderbird Apartments will begin today followed by Clover Glen in September. All work is planned to be completed by the start of October.
“The goal is to reduce the cost of operations for buildings and make it more sustainable,” project manager Ryan Sheehy said. “Expenses keep going up, but by using solar we can slow down the rising costs, freeze it or maybe reverse it.”
They found this project was possible only after two long years of research. According to Sheehy it is hard to put solar on the rooftops of affordable housing due to archaic regulations and codes. However, they have found a way to bring solar to La Grande’s low-income community, and other areas of Oregon, and can do so thanks to grants like the one they just received.
“As a business, we look to meet needs,” Sheehy said. “But there’s also an altruistic component — we want to help people, especially in (Northeast Oregon).”
In Wallowa County:
The Oregon Department of Energy has awarded a $250,000 grant to Ryan Sheehy’s Fleet Development’s affordable housing solar energy project based in Wallowa. The funds can be used at any phase of the project, including investing in the panels and hardware themselves, Sheehy said.
Fleet Development has planned an 860 KW solar array to be constructed at a 6-acre site across from the Wallowa High School football field, just outside the west city limits of Wallowa. The power from the solar panels will be subscribed to low-income power users through Pacific Power. The project’s total investment will be around $2.5 million when completed.
“I’m surprised that we were awarded the entire $250,000 grant,” Sheehy said. “Evidently ODOE recognized that we had checked all the boxes—a rural community, help for folks in affordable housing, and an economical, very efficient installation.”
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. 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 the subscription enables the renewable energy to enter the grid..”
Before Fleet Development can begin final construction on the Wallowa site, permits and additional planning are required. The Community Solar Program Administrator (PA) must produce extensive guidelines that determine how the power produced by HB 1547’s solar arrays will be distributed and how it will be accessed by low income power users. Distribution will be administered by Energy Solutions Corporation, based upon the implementation rules and guidelines.
One factor that may make or break Fleet’s project is the rate of return on power production, Sheehy said. “The rate of return is pretty marginal on these projects. We hope to break even—but we might not.” And that could mean that Fleet Development might drop the project. “At the end of the day we would not do it if we lost money,” he said. “But we are putting trust in the fact that the state wants the program to succeed.”
There is another hurdle to clear to make for smooth solar sailing. There is a limited amount of wattage (12 MW) available for solar distribution at the higher-paying retail rate that Fleet Development needs to at least break even on their project. More than 45 solar power projects, some of them boasting 3MW of power production, will be competing for the higher-paying 12 MW slots available. “It could all be gone in just seconds, and maybe to just four solar providers across Pacific Power’s grid,” Sheehy said. “It will be quite the food fight for those available 12 MW. Its possible that other power providers could capture all the available wattage assignments, and we just simply wouldn’t be providing power to the grid for low income use. So there’s a little bit of a gamble here.” While that possibility exists, Sheehy is hopeful that should this worst case scenario come to pass, that the PUC would open more wattage for Fleet Development and others to provide power to the grid.”
“We’re planning to move along,” he said. “Tentatively we’re planning to begin construction in the spring of 2020. Probably the first thing we’ll do is the landscaping and vegetative screening so the view-shed in Wallowa won’t be affected by the solar panel array.”