Interest in solar power projects in Crook County remains, but activity is minimal

A recent report compiled by the Environmental Oregon Research and Policy Center determined that Oregon ranks 13th in the nation in per capita solar installations.

Charlie Fisher, field organizer with Environment Oregon, took the ranking as an indication that the state is doing well, but is capable of doing much more in solar power generation.

“Our message today is clear: If we want our state to be a leader in pollution-free solar energy, we need to set big goals and get good policies on the books,” he said.

In Crook County, solar power has gained some traction in the form of modest facilities and the addition of solar panels to public buildings. However, no solar power plants have been built and there is no clear indication of when that might change.

“One of the crucial things is you have to be located close to transmission capabilities,” said Crook County Planning Director Bill Zelenka, who plays a role in any solar power facility approval. “You need a transmission line that can carry the power you generate. Aside from the cost of the panels, that is probably our number-one cost.”

Last year, the Crook County Planning Commission approved the first phase of a solar farm in Powell Butte. The vote allowed local residents Craig Kilpatrick and Ryan Hulett, of Crook County Solar 1, to build a 500-kilowatt facility.

Around the same timeframe, Crook County added solar panels to 11 of its buildings and the City of Prineville outfitted five of its structures for solar power. County Commissioner Ken Fahlgren explained that the power generated by the panels will help pay off a 15-year third-party investor contract with Solar City. The developer initially owns, operates, and maintains the panels and in turn makes money off of the solar power.

The power generated amounts to 39 cents per kilowatt hour, 32 cents of which goes back to Solar City. The city and county keep the remaining 7 cents per kilowatt hour, which Fahlgren estimates has provided the entities $3,000 to $4,000 per month.

“It has been good,” Fahlgren said of the solar venture. “We have been making money on it every month. Over time, it will end up paying for itself and we are going to own it.”

Besides the Powell Butte solar farm and the city and county solar panels, little else has transpired locally. Zelenka has encountered some interest over the years, but it has never prompted any projects.

“I think one of the reasons we get called is ... everybody is trying to hook into Facebook and Apple because of their stated purposes of being green and renewable,” he said.

While Apple has not officially disclosed any plans to build a solar facility to support its local data center, Facebook built a solar array in 2011 that was termed an experiment.

“We learned a lot and, as a bonus, the installation now provides enough energy to power the office facilities at the data center,” said Facebook data center spokesperson Lee Weinstein.

Zelenka went on to note that interest remains because Crook County is situated in the Bonneville Power Administration power corridor.

“The tire-kickers are still there, but whether or not it pans out is another story,” he said.

Meanwhile Fisher has high hopes for Oregon and its solar future. As far as he is concerned, the sky is the limit and state and local governments need to create public policy that will boost the development of solar.

“More and more, homes and businesses are turning to solar as a pollution-free energy source with no fuel costs,” he said. “Oregon must become a leading solar state.”

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