Solar energy is about to shine on Northeast Oregon in an innovative way.

Energy Trust of Oregon has awarded a $10,000 grant to Wallowa Resources Community Solutions in partnership with Fleet Development for a pilot project that helps low- and moderate-income Oregonians benefit from solar technology. Project developers also expect to receive a $39,000 grant from the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program in the coming weeks.

Fleet Development President Ryan Sheehy said the project, dubbed Park Street Solar, will involve installing solar panels on top of an 11-unit apartment building at 603 NW Silver St. in Enterprise. Construction will begin in June or July.

Betsy Kauffman, the renewable energy sector lead at Energy Trust, said while Energy Trust awarded eight other grants to solar projects across the state, the Wallowa Resources and Fleet Development plan is notably unique because it will bring the rewards of solar energy to people who may not traditionally have had access to it due to residing in multi-family housing.

“I’m interested to figure out how those families who aren’t in single-family homes can benefit from solar,” she said. “Apartment buildings have a lot of roof space, and being able to figure out how to utilize that roof space and get some financial benefit to the people in the building from the solar panels is really intriguing.”

Sheehy said there are two advantages for apartment tenants having access to solar energy.

“One is near term — the cost of energy the solar panel generates is fixed, whereas (traditional) utilities go up 2% a year,” he said. “Then there’s net metering, which means whatever excess is produced in the summer will roll over (as a) bill credit for the winter, which is a huge advantage for people on a fixed income.”

Sheehy also said the solar panels will save the building owners money in energy savings over time, so tenants will eventually see their rent costs go down.

“Owners of affordable housing projects have a fixed return they can take, so if cost goes down, they have to lower the rent,” he said. “That’s why there’s not much solar on these projects because there’s not a lot of financial incentives to do it.”

The importance of bringing solar power to low- and moderate-income families stems from the imbalance of renewable energy resources between socio-economic groups, according to Kyle Petrocine, program manager at Wallowa Resources Community Solutions, which is a subsidiary of Wallowa Resources.

“The next step is to try and expand to make the benefits from renewable energy more general,” he said. “We want to bring the benefits of energy choice, savings and reduction of carbon footprint to all types of different socio-economic backgrounds.”

See complete story in Monday's Observer

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