Solar power program broadens offerings

By Bill Rautenstrauch, for The Observer April 10, 2013 09:09 am

Peter Farnam is the coordinator for Solarize Union County 2013, a program initiated by the local  grassroots activist group Oregon Rural Action. (BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH photo)
Peter Farnam is the coordinator for Solarize Union County 2013, a program initiated by the local grassroots activist group Oregon Rural Action. (BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH photo)

Upcoming information session will give residents an opportunity to learn about the program and sign up for a free site assessment  

by BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / for The Observer 

A public-private program that resulted in installation of more than a dozen solar hot water systems in Union County last year is back for another round, expanding its offerings to include solar electric systems. 

Solarize Union County 2013, a brainchild of the local grassroots activist group Oregon Rural Action, kicks off with an information session 6 p.m. April 17 at Mt. Emily Ale House in La Grande. It’s a first chance this year for residents and small-business owners to find out if solar power is a good option for them.

“We’ll have both contractors there so people from Union County can meet with them and find out what they’re offering,” said Program Coordinator Peter Farnam. “It’s a chance to hear about the program and sign up for a free site assessment.”

Non-profit Oregon Rural Action says Solarize Union County is designed to build a vibrant renewable energy market locally, raise awareness about solar energy and spur local economic development.

The first project, in 2012, offered Oregon-made solar hot water systems installed by local workers and financed through the Union-Wallowa-Baker Credit Union. The Credit Union fronted $40,000 in loan funds, and Union County government helped the program with a $40,000 match from its renewable energy tax fund.

Those who had systems built took advantage of tax incentives that are helping pay down their loans.

“The tax rebates cut the costs of a system by about half,” Farnam said.

Mr. Sun Solar of Portland was the contractor for last year’s program, and provided apprentice training for local solar energy system installer Palmer Dobbs. Mr. Sun is returning to install hot water systems this year.

Added to the program is an option for a solar electric system installed by Blue Mountain Solar, a Cove company owned by Kent Osterberg and Kay Firor.

Farnam said the photovoltaic systems installed by Blue Mountain Solar are designed to bring money back to owners eventually.

“The systems have a grid-tied interface so that when you’re producing more than you’re using, it’s sold back to the power company,” he said.

Osterberg, Blue Mountain Solar’s vice president of engineering, graduated from engineering school in 1977 and subsequently earned a master’s degree in computer science. He worked inthe calibrations laboratory for PacificGas and Electric for many years.

In addition to system engineering, he heads ups equipment ordering and system installation with the local company.

Firor also has an engineering degree and worked four years as a photovoltaic research scientist at the Solar Energy Research Institute. In addition, she worked eight years in photovoltaic research for Pacific Gas and Electric. As well as working on Blue Mountain Solar projects, she teaches mathematics at Eastern Oregon University.

In 1989, Firor formed the consulting company Blue Mountain Energy, which eventually evolved into a systems installation company. Osterberg became a partner in the company in 2005, and in 2007 the couple formed Blue Mountain Solar.

Last year’s Solarize Union County program was the first of its kind in Oregon that was successfully implemented outside Energy Trust of Oregon territory. Farnam said the local program was inspired by an Energy Trust program in Pendleton.

“They were so successful over there, we thought we’d try it,” he said. He said loan money from Union County’s renewable energy tax fund, and more from the credit union, was key to the first-year success, and will be again this year.

Tax credits are also vital to the program’s success. Farnam said 2013 is a good time to take part in a Solarize program, because the tax incentives likely will go away in the future.

“They’re going to expire in a year or two,” he said. Farnam said he hopes for a successful program while the incentives are in place.

“The tax credits help make a nice, doable package for residents and small businesses,” he said.

The April 17 information session will be held in the upstairs conference room at Mt. Emily Ale House. For more information about Solarize Union County 2013, attend the session or contact Farnam at Oregon Rural Action, 541-975-2411, email www.oregonruralaction.org.