Incentive to go solar

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 17, 2012 01:18 pm

Homeowners in Union County take advantage of  low-interest loans to finance solar-powered hot water systems through a program spearheaded by Oregon Rural Action

The sun’s got some extra work to do in Union County, now that Oregon Rural Action’s first Solarize Union County project is nearing completion. 

The program, initiated by ORA and helped along by Union County government and the Union-Wallowa-Baker Credit Union, resulted in the installation of 14 solar-powered hot water systems in the county this summer and fall. Oregon Rural Action spokesperson Bridget Callahan said her grassroots activist group is more than happy with that outcome.

“The idea wasn’t to just drop some solar panels on a roof,” Callahan said. “It was to start to build a renewable energy market that didn’t exist here.”

Callahan said the program, offering low-interest loans for homeowners to go solar, is modeled on similar initiatives in Pendleton, Portland and other places. She said seed money for the project came from Union County’s renewable energy fund that is supported by taxes on the Elkhorn Valley Wind Farm at Telocaset.

The county put in $40,000, stipulating that the project would be one that supports local business. The credit union stepped up with matching funds and an offer to administer the loans.  Some grant funding helped pay for staffing and promotions.

With money in hand, non-profit ORA started spreading the word via its membership and in a series of local workshops. Callahan said the workshops were a key to the program’s success.

“They were to educate folks about the viability of solar and also the resources available,” she said.

One problem to overcome was the lack of a local contractor who installs solar hot water systems. Oregon Rural Action issued a request for proposals and eventually picked Mr. Sun Solar, an Portland outfit that’s been installing solar systems since the 1980s, to do the actual work. The company is owned by John Patterson.

Though the contractor was not from the local area, Aaron Akers Plumbing of La Grande was a subcontractor. Not only that, Palmer Dobbs, a man from Cove, went to work for Mr. Sun as an apprentice.

Dobbs said he’s always been passionate about solar energy and is looking for a way to get a start in the industry.

“If I had tried to do this on my own, I would have had to go live in the Willamette valley of Central Oregon for the summer,” Dobbs said.  “Traveling around, getting hands on experience while mentoring under John Patterson has been a hugely valuable experience for me, both personally and for my business.”

Callahan said free site assessments were done for people who showed an interest in having a system installed. One of those was John McIver, a forestry professor who works for the Oregon State University Extension Service.

McIver and his wife, Eastern Oregon University education professor Donna Rainboth, have an interest in energy issues and liked the idea of putting the sun to work at their home located on a hill above Cove.

“I think the main reason we decided to go ahead was that we want to do the right thing. We’re concerned about conservation and reducing reliance on fossil fuels,” he said.

McIver said that with the two percent loan and state and federal tax incentives, the cost for a system came in at about $4,000. He and his wife figured that was a better than good deal.

“We were on propane and hadn’t really thought about what we were paying. A high percentage of our bill was for hot water,” he said. “We estimate we can pay back the system in six or seven years. What’s great about it is, there’s a 25-year guarantee on our system.”

Mr. Sun Solar installed two solar panels on McIver’s south-facing roof, along with a photovoltaic mechanism that turns the system on and off. The panels are filled with anti-freeze, which flows down to the McIvers’ hot water tank and preheats the water inside it. 

Showing the system off, McIver pointed to a gauge at the tank. A bubble measuring system activity moved up and down as the sun outside appeared, then disappeared behind clouds.

“Coils build up the heat, then transfer it,” McIver said. “The temperature stays at 60 degrees ambient, and heats up very quickly when the sun’s shining.”

McIver said the system was installed only this month, but in the early going he and his wife are pleased with its performance.

“We think it’s great so far. Our house is perfect for it. There’s not many trees close by and we have a roof that’s exactly the right angle,” he said.

In its first round, Solarize Union County did about 30 site assessments. Not everyone bought in, but a lot of solar energy education was passed around. Dave Felley, a member of Oregon Rural Action’s energy team, said that’s the icing on the cake.

“I think the program is going to have the long term effect of growing awareness, and the nice thing is, we’re only at the beginning,” he said.

The program closes in November, but Oregon Rural Action hopes to do an encore.

“Now that it’s kind of a well-oiled machine, we’re looking at doing it again next summer,” Callahan said. “This is about self reliance, creating your own energy, and there’s something empowering about that.”