City News

Renters, homeowners can save money through community solar as Oregon program expands

With multiple campuses across the Willamette Valley, Chemeketa Community College spends over $1 million a year on electricity.

So when Isaac Talley heard the college might be able to save money by supporting solar farms, he was eager to learn more.

Talley, the college’s technical development manager for facilities, enrolled Chemeketa in Oregon’s community solar program, which allows any customer served by the state’s major electric utilities to earn electricity bill credits from a renewable project without having to install or maintain panels themselves.

Two years later, the college is poised to save about $31,000 per year by subscribing to five solar projects through the program, with no upfront cost or need to maintain panels on campus. One is online currently, and the other four are due to start generating power by the end of the year.

“This was just a great way to accomplish some of those energy goals offsite where someone else is doing the maintenance,” Talley said.

Legislators created Oregon’s community solar program in 2016 as part of a larger bill to shift the state’s energy production away from coal power.

The program was intended to make it easier for renters, low-income Oregonians and others who didn’t have the space or ability to install solar panels to support development of projects. The state’s Public Utility Commission was charged with administering the program.

It’s taken several years to get off the ground, but nearly 60 solar installations across the state are now participating, with about half currently operating or expected to come online by the end of the year, according to the state program website.

That includes three Salem projects with a total generating capacity of 6,750 kilowatts — enough to power several thousand homes.

The program runs through subscription management companies, who work with solar developers to sign up customers to buy into projects.

Customers who get electricity from Portland General Electric, Pacific Power or Idaho Power are generally eligible to sign up. That includes individual renters and homeowners with electric bills, as well as businesses, nonprofits and government entities.

Once enrolled, subscribers own a share in a solar project and pay a monthly fee toward that project as part of their electricity bill, plus an administrative fee of about $1 per month. In exchange, they get a bill credit for the power generated by the project, which is generally higher than the monthly fee.

Low-income customers are guaranteed they won’t pay more if they enroll in the program.

“The financial savings can be pretty substantial,” said Sean Micken, partnerships manager for Oregon Shines, which manages the projects Chemeketa is enrolled in.

The payment goes toward the project developer to cover the cost of installing the panels.

Oregon Shines, based in Tigard, is one of several subscription companies now seeking to expand recruitment as more community solar projects come online.

Micken said to date, nearly every customer in the Salem area enrolled in the community solar program is a business or other large institution like Chemeketa. Plaid Pantry has signed up to participate with 90 of its stores enrolled, offsetting about half the chain’s electrical use.

A few dozen residential customers in Marion and Polk counties are also enrolled, he said.

Earlier this year, the utility commission changed the rules to require more residential subscribers in each project. Micken said his goal now is to reach out to homeowners and renters to let them know they have the option to sign up.

“This year it’s really going to be a shift to recruit residential subscribers,” he said.

More information about Oregon Community Solar is available on the state project website.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.