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Project spends grant money on solar-powered installation at Southwest Community Center

Work is wrapping up this month on the installation of a new solar electric system at the Southwest Community Center (SWCC). Now, through a project known as Solar For- ward, city officials are hoping sustainably minded Southwest Portlanders will pay to do the same thing somewhere else — even if it means never getting that money back.

A solar-powered SWCC

In April, the city was awarded $100,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation’s Penstemon Fund, which bankrolls community-based efforts to increase the use of clean energy in Oregon and southern Washington. That windfall was combined with a utility incentive through Portland General Electric’s Solar Payment Option pilot program to pay for a 10-kW, photovoltaic system at a Portland Parks & Recreation facility.

The SWCC, in Southwest Portland’s Multnomah neighborhood, seemed like the obvious choice.

“It’s a perfect rooftop for solar,” said Andria Jacob, senior manager at the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, noting that it’s structurally-sound, doesn’t need much extra engineering and is ideally oriented by facing south.

The SWCC is also, she said, “well loved, highly used and where the system would be visible to the public from the building ... entrance.”

Said SWCC Director MaryAnn Takashima via email: “The community surrounding SWCC emphasizes ... caring for our environment and using existing resources to benefit future energy op- tions. The orientation of the roof of SWCC and opportunity to raise awareness of alternative energy sources seem to be a perfect fit for SWCC’s philosophy.”

So rather than viewing the grant as a one-time opportunity to install a single solar electric system, BPS, PP&R and Solar Oregon have teamed up on Solar Forward and created Portland’s first so-called revolving community solar fund.

Solar Forward: beyond Southwest

The premise of the Solar Forward fund is to

raise enough money through community contributions to, when combined with PGE utility incentives, install a solar electric system at another facility — and repeat the process again and again throughout the city.

“Southwest Community Center has been kick-started by the Oregon Community Foundation, and the way we’re trying to approach the community is, ‘Hey, let’s match what they’ve given us and see if we can crowd fund enough money here to be able to turn over and do an installation in another community center’,” Jacob said.

The hope is that Southwest neighbors who can’t install a solar electric system on their homes —because they rent rather than own, reside in too much shade or simply can’t afford it — will be especially appreciative of this energy-efficient addition to their community and inspired to pay it forward.

“It would be like Southwest residents saying, ‘Hey, we got this awesome system ... I’m going to match that contribution from the grant and hope- fully enable some other neighborhood in another part of the city to have a system just like we do at Southwest Community Center’,” Jacob said.

Plus, all donors will be acknowledged on their website and receive some kind of permanent recognition at the SWCC.

Repayment not possible

Inititally, donors were promised the option to treat contributions of $500 or more as microloans and get their money back in a lump sum. Jacob had said a fund model built by her technical staff showed that Solar Forward should be able to return such contributions in full in six years.

But one week after Jacob’s Sept. 5 interview, The Connection got word that, on the advice of the BPS legal department, Solar Forward wouldn’t be offering a repayment option after all.

Upon legal review, “Certain potential pitfalls emerged that caused us to reconsider,” Jacob said via email Sept. 13. “If the city promises to repay someone it may be considered a debt of the city and that if we are issuing debt, then that adds some hurdles. It would be unlikely that unaccredited investors ... would be able to participate. Answering this question about debt issuance alone would cost us thousands of dollars of legal fees. The cost to the city of administering these possible debt instruments also would be prohibitive.

“In the final analysis, it just didn’t seem worth pursuing. It’s unfortunate that we printed a couple hundred fliers with incorrect informtion, but such is the fluidity of the world we live in.”

She added: “We did a few outreach events this summer to test the messaging — and found that the repayment option confused the public to some degree.

“So, all in all, we feel like we are moving forward with a simpler, more cost-effective program design at this point.”

Moving forward with Solar Forward

A second Solar Forward installation was originally estimated to take six years, but the new goal is for it to be complete within 1 1/2.

Right now, Solar Forward is putting together a list of potential sites owned by either PP&R or Portland Public Schools to apply for PGE utility incentives, awarded by lottery.

While Solar Forward works out the details of future installations, SWCC patrons should soon get an education in the ins and outs of solar power there.

“The installation of solar panels at SWCC will include an interactive kiosk for children to learn about the importance of alternative energy sources,” Takashima said. Wherever the next Solar Forward installation ends up happening — if it ends up happening — it will bring renewable energy to members of another Portland community. And they’ll have Southwest Portlanders to thank.

“We think it’s pretty powerful,” Jacob said, “for a mom taking her kid to swim at a community center to point up at the roof over the entrance, and say, ‘Hey, we helped build that.’”

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