2 area firms tap into solar energy market

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer August 03, 2011 07:32 pm

Sun Storage and Enterprise Electric install solar arrays with motorized trackers for maximum solar power efficiency.
Sun Storage and Enterprise Electric install solar arrays with motorized trackers for maximum solar power efficiency.

Sun Storage make solar arrays that track sun; Enterprise Electric programs computers that run motorized trackers

JOSEPH — Wallowa County businesses Enterprise Electric and Sun Storage are pioneering into the solar energy market. Incentive programs and growing interest in alternative energy provide local jobs designing and building solar arrays for a global market.

Jonathan Monschke of Sun Storage of Joseph said the company makes both stationary and tracking solar arrays. The more expensive but higher producing trackers are increasing in demand locally and around the world.

“We’ve had a good reception for trackers. We’ve sold a few and quoted lot of large projects,” Monschke said. “Soon we may be shipping to China.”

The difference in profitability between a stationary solar array and a tracking system depends on the reimbursement rate, Monschke said. If the power rate is high enough to recoup costs, the tracking system is more profitable.

Jared Hillock of Enterprise Electric programs the computers that run the trackers. He said the trackers cost 25 percent to 30 percent more to build, but create 25 percent to 30 percent more power.

Rates vary, but the Oregon Solar Incentive Program website says small projects that produce less than 10 kilowatts receive $.43 per kilowatt hour and projects producing 10 to 100 kilowatts receive $.39 per kilowatt hour. Rates for large-scale projects greater than 100 kilowatts to 500 kilowatts are determined by competitive bidding process.

The Oregon Solar Incentive Program was created by the Oregon Legislature to encourage the development of solar energy projects in the state. The 2009 Legislature passed House Bill 3039 and the 2010 Legislature passed House Bill 3690 establishing a volumetric incentive rate program to encourage solar installations, the Oregon Solar Incentive Program website says. The program was designed to encourage the development of solar energy projects by requiring participating utilities to buy solar electricity at a premium price from customers. A contract between the customer and Pacific Power set the price over 15 years to help customers cover the costs of purchasing and installing systems.

Many solar arrays have no moving parts and are strategically installed to receive the maximum amount of sun. The tracking arrays are also fixed in one spot, but a motor slowly moves the panels along the course of the sun to capture as much power as possible.

“As the sun moves across the sky, the single axis tracker moves the panels from east to west,” Monschke said.

Hillock said the system works like a sundial.

“An algorithm calculates the position of the sun, the time, date, latitude and longitude. It uses those coordinates and GPS to get the precise time,” Hillock said.

The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo.,  designed the algorithm, Hillock said. The Siemens computer that runs the tracking arrays comes with that algorithm, but a lot of programming was necessary to get it to work with the trackers.

“It took a lot of research and development — about six months — to fine tune,” Hillock said.

He said they have three installed and six to build, mostly for residential customers.

Monschke said business, in general, is going very well. The company employs seven people in its corporate office and subs out work like programming the motors to Enterprise Electric and steel fabrication to Baretto Manufacturing of La Grande.

Monschke said having steel fabrication done in La Grande is cost-effective and allows Sun Storage to offer a high-quality product.

Hillock said in the past year he has been able to stay fully employed on solar jobs alone. He’s installed arrays in Enterprise at Cloverleaf Hall at the fairgrounds, Chopper’s Car Wash, Enterprise Electric, at his own home and on his grandfather John Hillock Sr.’s house. All of these systems have 15-year contracts with Pacific Power and receive monthly payments from the utility.

Cloverleaf, the largest of the projects, is creating power right on schedule, Hillock said. He had predicted a return of $4,000 a year, and at the six-month mark the system had made $2,000 in energy credits.