Lawmakers drop solar-panel program effective Dec. 31, a program that makes solar panels affordable

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL  - Solar Panels outside Joseph Gale Elementary School generate about 15 percent of the school's power. Forest Grove residents thinking about installing solar panels might want to make a decision before the end of 2017.

The Oregon Legislature failed to renew the state's Residential Energy Tax Credit this year, taking away some statewide monetary incentives to install energy-efficient and green-energy systems at home.

The consequences of letting the program die are serious, said Oregon Solar Energy Industry Association Executive Director Jeff Bissonnette, who saw similar incentives in Washington and Nevada go through dramatic changes.

"They saw an evaporation of the industry overnight," he said.

While long-term effects on the solar industry are a concern, there could be a boom in business initially. That's because Bissonnette said solar customers can still take advantage of the state tax credit as long as they sign a deal with a contractor before Dec. 31. They have until April 1 to install the system.

A recent report from Environment Oregon found the state's clean energy grew at a slightly slower rate than the national average in the last decade, but the green energy industry has exploded at all levels since 2007. According to the report, Oregon's green energy industry is 41 times larger than it was 10 years ago, while the national industry is 43 times larger.

Forest Grove resident Dale Feik installed his $17,550 solar panel system in 2009. After receiving a city of Forest Grove rebate, as well as state and federal tax credits, Feik ended up paying $5,235 total for the system.

During the first six years, Feik saved nearly $1,200 on his energy bills.

But Feik didn't install solar panels with dollar signs in mind. As an environmentalist, Feik is proud to say he's reducing his CO2 output by 6,480 pounds each year. Some months, he said, he even contributes power back into Forest Grove's grid.

Even though saving money was not his primary motivation, the $6,000 he received in Oregon state tax credits — $1,500 a year for four consecutive years — made a significant dent in the cost of the system.

Forest Grove School District officials hopped aboard the green-energy train in 2012 when they installed 156 solar panels on Joseph Gale Elementary School — which is Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified — using sustainable, energy-efficient and cost-saving measures throughout the building.

The district wanted to do its part to decrease greenhouse gases and to be an example for children learning about taking care of the Earth, said district spokesman David Warner, who said the Joseph Gale solar panels reduce the school's energy bill by about 15 percent per month. NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL  - Dale Feik installed solar panels on his home in 2009. He took advantage of federal and state tax credits as well as city incentives.

Because the city of Forest Grove has its own light and power division, electrical rates are lower than those of Portland General Electric, which provides power to most cities in the Portland-metro area. The city of Forest Grove offers customers power at about one-third of the price of Portland General Electric.

Feik still thinks it's a good idea to install solar panels even though the savings might not be quite as high as in other cities, because electrical rates — even in Forest Grove — are only going to rise. Currently, there's an electrical rate increase scheduled for the first of the new year.

Residents in areas where electrical rates are already higher are impressed by the savings.

Banks resident Mark Schmidlin — a PGE customer — has been saving "quite a bit of money" since installing solar panels at his home. Some months out of the year, he said, he saves $400 to $500.

Schmidlin took advantage of the Oregon tax credit, which was a big motivator for him and his wife when considering solar panels. Without that credit, Schmidlin doesn't consider solar panels to be very affordable.

A member of the Banks Fire District 13 board, Schmidlin was so impressed with his renewable energy source that he asked Banks Fire Chief Rodney Linz to look into a similar system for the fire station, which runs up an $1,100 to $1,200 electric bill each month.

Linz and Banks Fire Executive Assistant Deanna Friedman researched the matter and secured a $230,000 grant from the Portland General Electric Renewable Development Fund. That left Banks Fire with a $30,000 bill to cover the rest of the system, which is expected to produce 90,100 kilowatt hours per year.

The move toward solar will slash the department's power bill by anywhere from 63 to 78 percent a month, Friedman said. The department will have saved that $30,000 in less than four years.

Government agencies like Banks Fire aren't eligible for tax credits, however, Linz said.

"We're trying to be the best stewards of tax payer money and look at the bigger picture," said Friedman, who wrote the grant application.

"It's a very large station," Linz said. "We're always looking at how we can reduce costs in any way."

The Banks Fire solar system is expected to be completed in the next couple weeks. There will be a real-time monitor installed to show how much energy the panels are generating and how much money that saves.

While the Oregon tax credit won't be available after Dec. 31, 2017, there will still be a few options for those who want to make use of solar energy. A federal tax credit covers up to 30 percent of the total solar panel installation cost. That credit is set to decrease Dec. 31, 2019, however.

The energy trust of Oregon also offers a 30-cent per kilowatt incentive for installing panels.

The city of Forest Grove offers residents rebates for energy-efficient actions they take. Local residents can get rebates for purchasing energy-efficient appliances. For those using electric heat, Forest Grove also offers rebates for weatherization projects, such as adding insulation and upgrading windows.

In addition, the city offers Forest Grove residents with solar panels up to $1,500 as part of an 'incentive payment' program.

- Reporter John William Howard contributed to this story.

By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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