|Portland is on track to install at least 400 residential rooftop installations this year, a tripling of 2008’s total installations. Photo: Dustin Eppers/EnzymePDX|
With gloom and drizzle about nine months of the year, it’s hard to think of Portland as Solar City. Yet with the marked increase in residential solar roof installations and the fact that the region is home to the rapidly expanding North American solar manufacturer SolarWorld, Portland’s outlook is sunny.
Neighborhood associations in the Southeast, Northeast and Southwest of the city, in conjunction with the Solarize! Program from the Oregon Energy Trust and the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, have done much in the last two years to help homeowners take advantage of tax credits and get over their anxiety in order to go solar. Though California is the U.S. leader in installed solar, with more than 600 megawatts of solar connected to the electric grid from nearly 65,000 customer sites (residential and commercial), Oregon-wide there are now 17,000 rooftop residential installations, and total solar capacity is around 8 MW. Portland is on track to install at least 400 rooftop installations this year, a tripling of 2008’s total installations.
Putting gray Portland on the solar map has happened due to a confluence of factors. Portland is one of 16 cities to receive $10 million each from a Department of Energy program to increase residential solar. Another motivator is Oregon’s change to its renewable portfolio standard last year to specifically require that 20 MW of solar be installed by 2020. Also important is Oregon’s availability of net metering, which means a new meter is installed along with the new panels to track the power being sent to the grid. Depending on how many kilowatt hours are generated, a resident can bank energy credits during sunny days.
“Our program was far, far bigger than what we ever expected to begin with,” said Tim O’Brien, sustainability coordinator at the Southeast solar program through SE Uplift, which is in its second year of its Solarize efforts. O’Brien said that net metering, good tax credits, and a desire to be less yoked to nonrenewable power play a role, but that even he was surprised at the growth of Solarize!
Last year, 350 people from the Southeast went to workshops, and about 100 installations were completed. This year, a whopping 800 participants went through the SE workshops, 1,000 went through the new Northeast variant, and nearly 700 applied to the Southwest program. Individual assessments of participants’ homes are now happening at the rate of about 20 per week in each quadrant.
“The state of the economy makes what happened this year even more surprising,” O’Brien added.
The neighborhood associations each partnered with a single solar installer, in SE Uplift’s case local Imagine Energy, to handle all the technical aspects of installations. This was a collective bargaining strategy on the part of Uplift and the other associations in order to get the best possible price for equipment. It also helped bring a local element to the projects, O’Brien said. In its request for proposals, Uplift could specify a preference for a local contractor, as well as local products.
That’s where SolarWorld comes in.
Through Imagine, Uplift was able to offer residents SolarWorld or Sanyo panels (produced in Salem), and in the first year, inverters made in Bend, or German-made inverters. ”I wouldn’t want to say we were anywhere near 100 percent local,” O’Brien said. “We were able to state a preference, however, and went with Imagine as installer though they were not the lowest bid.”
SolarWorld vice president Robert Beisner said the company is selling all the cells and panels it is able to make – and is currently heading toward producing 500 MW of cells and modules annually. The company is also increasing staffing from the current 650 people to 1,000 by the end of this year. About 1 MW of the company’s products will be deployed in Oregon this year, he said.
A tour of the Hillsboro SolarWorld factory is a peek into the very industrial side of turning sunshine into warm water and electricity. A many-staged process includes growing a seed of silicon nestled in a tube of hot polysilicon slurry to produce a 5.5-foot-tall, 8-inch-wide silicon crystal bullet that is cut into ultrathin slices and then squared, etched, and diffused with a layer of phosphorus. The ending cells are whisper thin, colored a mesmerizing shade of deep purple-blue from a layer of silicon nitride, and pin-striped with metal to transmit collected energy.
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