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Solar Program a Bright Spot in Oregon's Future

(This article originally appeared in the Salem Statesman-Journal, Dec. 17, 2010)

Imagine yourself hurtling through space on a ship with your fellow Americans, running low on fuel, the air-conditioning failing, smoke beginning to fill the passenger cabin. Up in the national cockpit, the flight crew, is arguing about which team gets to fly the ship. Meanwhile, out the window you can see the ships of other nations beginning to pull ahead of us using new technology. What can you do?

We Americans currently send overseas $1 billion per day to import oil, using money borrowed from China, and then burn it locally in ways that harm public health and contribute to global climate change. This self-defeating hemorrhage is clearly unsustainable. Our national leaders seem incapable of addressing the problem.

It falls to us to act. Oregon doesn't have oil and coal resources. But Oregon does have a new pilot program for renewable energy that enables individual Oregonians to become part of the solution.

Under the program, utilities will purchase electricity generated by solar panels on homes and small businesses at rates calculated to pay for the cost of installing those small solar systems. The monthly income from generating solar electricity can be used to make loan payments for the solar installation. Prudent small electricity generators may be able to earn a small return, too, if they are careful about their costs.

There are other benefits. Generating electricity close to where it is being consumed saves the costs and environmental impacts of constructing new transmission lines, and reduces the electrical losses of long-distance transmission. It also creates new local jobs for Oregonians and recirculates money in our local economy.

Unlike the Business Energy Tax Credit and the Residential Energy Tax Credit programs, this program uses no Oregon tax dollars. We need renewable energy on a vast scale, but the State cannot afford to finance it with more tax dollars.

Critics claim that the program will cause your electricity rates to jump, but the impact on ratepayers will be about 50¢ per month (0.5%) once the five-year program is fully subscribed.

The program, modeled after feed-in tariffs that have proved hugely successful, first in Germany and now in 65 countries, is designed to drive down the cost of renewable energy. As more systems are installed and the competitive market grows, incentive rates are reduced and the cost of renewable power is reduced.

Solar power is more expensive now than electricity generated by burning coal. This paradigm is changing rapidly. Solar equipment costs have dropped by 40% in the last two years and will continue to decline. In Germany, the cost of renewable power is projected to reach parity with the cost of electricity from fossil fuels by 2013.

Oregon's program is not perfect and needs refinement. At the same time, the pilot program demonstrates that Oregonians want to generate solar power; many people have been frustrated that the limited capacity has sold out so quickly.

Regulators are rolling out the program in small increments in order to give Oregonians a chance to learn about it and enroll. The next enrollment period will open on April 1, 2011, with subsequent enrollment periods every six months.

Now you can do your part.

Mark Pengilly is a director of Oregonians for Renewable Energy Policy, which advocates for feed-in tariffs in Oregon. The group participated in the solar incentive rule-making process before the Oregon Public Utility Commission.


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