By Sabrina Thompson and Ellen Morris Bishop

EO Media Group

Solar installation for buildings lived in by lower-income families, older adults and people with disabilities is now a possibility in La Grande, thanks to a $90,000 grant awarded by the Oregon Department of Energy. A grant for $250,000 will cover the cost for a similar project in Wallowa.

ODOE awarded $1.25 million in grants as part of its Renewable Energy Development Grant fund. La Grande and Wallowa are among six cities receiving a portion of this funding. RED was launched in 2012, and this year marks the eighth and final round of funding. Large projects like the two in Northeast Oregon, those
using more than 300 kilowatts, were considered separate from smaller ones so that more opportunities for funding could occur, according to ODOE Public Affairs & Outreach Coordinator Jennifer Kalez.

“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 La Grande

Union County Solar LLC will complete the project in La Grande. The money for the project will be granted once 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.”

It was after two years of research that they found this project was possible. According to Sheehy it is hard to put solar on 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

Fleet Development has planned an 860 kW solar array to be constructed at a six-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.

“The community solar option is new in Oregon, established by Senate Bill 1547, passed in 2016,” said Sheehy, Fleet’s CEO. “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’s guidelines determine how the power produced by SB 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. Work is planned to start in 2020.

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. 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.”

“The Oregon Department of Energy is proud to support projects that add renewable generation across Oregon,” said ODOE Director Janine Benner. “And we were pleased to see applications this year that will help expand access to renewable energy for low-income Oregonians and other underserved communities.”