As explained in Part 1 of this guest opinion, the solar farm proposed for the Imperatrice property by the 10x20 ordinance advocates is an expensive boondoggle that will do nothing to make Ashland’s electricity greener, do nothing to improve our energy security and do a lot to increase our electric rates.
Part of the cost increase is due to the fact that Ashland has what’s called a “take or pay” contract with the Bonneville Power Administration. That means the city pays BPA for a fixed amount of electricity whether we use it or not. So even if we started getting 10 percent of our power from an expensive and unnecessary solar farm, we would still pay the BPA for the power we’re contractually obligated to purchase from them, even though we’re not using it!
And don’t believe the 10x20 advocates for even a nanosecond when they argue that we can renegotiate our contract with the BPA. The BPA has absolutely no incentive to do that and they just flat out won’t do it.
So what should the city do to meet the intent of the 10x20 ordinance (short of repealing it altogether, since it’s an amateurishly written ordinance that contains no definitions of “new,” clean” or “local”)?
First, the city should double (or triple) down on its leading-edge conservation and energy efficiency programs. Everyone in the electric utility business recognizes that conservation is the least expensive, most effective and most reliable form of power supply. (The least expensive power is the power you don’t produce in the first place.) In fact, the current Seven-year Northwest Power Plan produced by the Northwest Power Planning Council calls for no new power plants to be constructed in the Northwest and for all new load growth to be fulfilled by conservation and energy efficiency. Oregon’s last remaining coal-fired power plant is already scheduled for closure by 2025 and no new ones will be built.
Next, if money is to be spent on solar energy, the city should focus its efforts on distributed (rooftop) solar. This is especially true in the commercial area in south Ashland, where acres and acres of flat commercial and industrial rooftops are crying out for solar panels. These rooftop solar installations directly benefit the property owners who install them (without burdening all ratepayers with the cost) and can be connected directly to the distribution system if necessary. What’s more, small installations such as these will not implicate the take-or-pay provisions of the BPA contract, thus letting us retain the low electric rates we all enjoy.
Third, explore and develop in-pipe hydropower. This is a relatively new and very promising renewable energy strategy that is already being used by the city of Portland. It’s a relatively simple process wherein small power-generation turbines are placed in downhill water distribution lines. Ashland probably can’t do enough in-pipe hydro to generate 10 percent of the city’s electricity, but a combination of conservation, rooftop solar and in-pipe hydro could get us there.
Lastly, aim for 2028 rather than 2020. The year 2028 is when the city contract with the Bonneville Power Administration expires. That allows the city to transition to other forms of power supply (if necessary) without unduly burdening ratepayers today. What’s more, we will likely find that Oregon and the Northwest have moved to a cleaner, greener future by then, thanks to the “Coal to Clean” bill passed by the 2015 Legislature.
A large, expensive solar farm is not what Ashland needs right now. At a time when “affordability” has become such a political buzzword, it will simply make Ashland less affordable while doing nothing to reduce the city’s carbon footprint or improve our energy security. It’s time for the city’s more rational, pragmatic minds to step forward, put the kibosh on this ridiculous solar farm idea and move the city in a direction that leads to a truly sustainable and affordable future.
— Dave Kanner was Ashland city administrator from 2012 to 2016.