Airport solar farm project moves slowly

A year after a solar farm near the Medford airport was proposed, the project remains a net energy consumer. While the meter is running at lawyers' offices and energy program deadlines near, the project is slogging through the bureaucratic maze.

"The county hasn't done anything major with solar before, so our learning curve is a little higher," Airport Director Bern Case said.

"It's taking longer than we thought, but we do have a pending document kicking back and forth."

Even after Jackson County and RHT Energy Solutions finalize a deal, Case anticipates it will be 2011 before the project takes shape.

In July 2009, the county said it wanted to place photovoltaic solar panels — capable of generating as much as 7.9 megawatts of power — on 47 acres of county land between Corona and Whittle avenues south of Crater Lake Highway, about a quarter-mile east of the Fred Meyer store.

The panels would produce enough electricity to power 1,500 homes during peak production.

But the going has been slow.

"There are certain things that have to fall into place and we're striving to move them," Case said.

He said some potential obstacles, such as vernal pools near Corona Avenue, have been overcome.

"One of the nice things about solar is that you can work around that," Case said. "Compatibility shouldn't be a big issue. The concept remains pretty much where we were at."

While conventional incentives to develop solar energy sources are winding down, there are new options to help push the cost-benefit analysis in the right direction, said Buzz Thielemann of RHT Energy Solutions.

The state established a feed-in tariff system in 2009 and both Pacific Power and Portland Gas & Electric are introducing pilot feed-in programs for new solar photovoltaic panels on July 1. The program will help solar power-generating customers recover installation costs.

Electricity produced by solar panels essentially has run meters backwards, reducing customers' power bills and creating credits for the next month. Through the feed-in tariff program, customers will receive a set rate for the power produced, first applied to their power bills with the remainder paid to the producer.

The state Public Utility Commission has set the rate at 65 cents per kilowatt hour for systems up to 10 kilowatts, and 55 cents per kilowatt-hour for systems producing between 10 kilowatts and 100 kilowatts.

"Solar energy is getting far less expensive to install," Thielemann said. "The feed-in tariff is an economic design to bring solar to the forefront. That's why Germany — where the climate is similar to ours — has the most generous (kilowatt) rates and (solar) installations."

The pilot programs, however, are limited to 25 megawatts statewide, with Pacific Power allocated 9.8 megawatts to distribute by October 2013.

As a result, Thielemann said, the airport project needs to move forward as quickly as possible.

"We're getting down to crunch time," he said.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

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