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OSU research center harnesses the sun

by: SPOKESMAN PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This array of solar panels at Oregon State Universitys North Willamette Research and Extension Center will be able to produce up to 200 kilowatt hours of power at full production. A newly installed array of solar panels at Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center could cut the facility’s annual power bill in half, according to preliminary estimates.

And with an annual electricity tab of more than $25,000, according to an April 2013 report presented by NWREC to Clackamas County, that’s nothing to sneeze at in an era of ever-decreasing higher education budgets in Oregon.

The new solar panel array will produce an estimated 200 kilowatt hours of power at peak production, according to project documents submitted to Clackamas County. The array consists of three long rows of panels that now parallel Miley Road, stretching from the NWREC entry gate west to the northwest corner of the 160-acre facility.

Work began in November and is now largely finished. The multiple rows of panels were installed on schedule, and are expected to start supplying the facility with electricity after becoming operational at the end of February, according to NWREC Director Mike Bondi.

OSU is working with private firm Solar City on the project. The latter is supplying the solar panels that will eventually generate up to 80 percent of the electricity NWREC uses annually. The cost of power has ranged from $25,000 to $28,000 annually in recent years, so the prospect of generating the bulk of that electricity on-site is attractive for university officials.

“It will generate most of the power needs for the research center,” Bondi said. “And it will showcase how this might work out in an agricultural setting. It won’t take any agricultural land out of production.”

According to project documents, OSU and Solar City have inked a 20-year agreement to carry out the project, with the company providing funding for the capital costs and ongoing maintenance of the panels. This, in turn, required the university to rework an earlier 10-year lease on NWREC property with Clackamas County for the same 20-year period.

It’s largely this tedious process that has led to months of delays on the actual installation. Last September, Bondi said he was hoping to see work started by October. That didn’t quite happen, but aided by unseasonably dry weather, crews were able to get to work just across the road from Charbonneau in November and complete the installation in December.

According to the December NWREC newsletter, the array is part of a larger Oregon State University and Solar City campaign to install alternative energy infrastructure throughout the OSU system. NWREC was invited to participate in the project because of its location and the amount of electricity it uses.

The on-site facility will generate power, while monitoring equipment will show energy production and consumption on a daily, weekly and even yearly basis at the touch of a button.

Solar City will maintain the solar system over time in the same way it does at other co-hosted locations with OSU, including a pair of arrays at the university’s main campus in Corvallis. In addition to generating revenue through power sales to the university, the university in turn is given a 20-year cushion against rate increases.

“Assuming we’ve got all the infrastructure in place, we also want to put a screen of arbor vitae between fence and panels so it isn’t quite so objectionable,” Bondi said. “And I don’t think it’ll be objectionable.”

That’s about how it has played out, albeit on a slightly delayed time frame. The arbor vitae are in place, shielding the panels from Miley Road, and the panels themselves are now being prepared for operational status by Solar City crews.

“If this works the way I hope it does we’ll be in good shape,” Bondi said. “This is one we’ve been working on for quite a few months.”




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