Probably the most common question asked about Ashland’s renewable energy ordinance (10x20) is: “Why not just put solar panels on all the rooftops?”. There are several long and short answers to this, and none of them are difficult. Sometimes I prefer to make this analogy: Suppose you have an active kitchen and want to store 4 pounds of rice. Would you want to store it in one or two large canisters, or would you prefer to store it in 95 little jars?
We know the answer, and it coincides with the results of every other search for the best way to meet the ordinance requirements. One pretty good answer is: a 55-acre solar farm. It turns out that since Ashland is already the happy owner of a very appropriate chunk of land that has few other uses, the riddle is solved! Approximately 6 percent of Ashland’s 860-acre Imperatrice property, right across Interstate 5, fits this need. Currently the city staff is working on the complexities of a plan to implement 10x20, but it needs council (and citizen) guidance.
Now, the second-most frequently asked question is, “Why does Ashland want to do this, to get 10 percent of its power through its own local renewable energy?” You can see the answer plainly in the city’s heavily invested Climate and Energy Action Plan. You can also hear the answer in the dialogues of a large number of concerned citizens, who are seriously asking how we can reduce our carbon footprint. Well, by annually generating 22 gigawatt-hours of nearly carbon-free energy, we will have at least made a start. An effort. A city-wide effort.
Do not let anyone tell you that producing 22 gwh of juice is merely replacing renewable energy from our BPA supplier with renewable energy. Anyone who nurtures and harvests an organic fruit tree will explain to you why that tree contributes to the net supply of organic fruit in this world. When you insert 22 gwh of new electricity into the "system," you’ve added that much new renewable energy. It also helps to know that the fine BPA power we buy from sources 400 miles away (with line loss) is statistically no more than about 50 percent from actual renewable sources. And that the best of it is hydro-power that BPA will have no trouble furnishing to others in need.
Some readers suspect correctly that there is more to this story of "Why do we want our own good, local energy?” The answer lies in the long-term strategy of providing the basis for a resilient electricity function in our town.
Modern technology is bringing online, as we speak, forms of local self-sufficient power grids known as micro-grids. The idea is that in the event of the loss of shipped-in power, a community can turn to its internal grid to meter power to critical or sub-critical needs. Ashland, with its own fiber network and a generally interested citizenry, is well-poised to consider resiliency. Of course — what is the essential element in a local micro-grid? It is a usable local source of power.
We have a small hydro system already, operating on Ashland Creek. This can be made more useful, larger, relatively easily. Combined for balance with a 22 gwh solar farm and an energy storage unit, Ashland can have a very fine micro-grid. Please note that a micro-grid is an option of but not the reason for building the solar farm. The first reason is the renewable energy.
The sequel to this guest opinion will deal with how such a farm pays for itself. Until then, please understand that the solar farm functions like a giant solar rooftop over the entire city. Like any rooftop solar array, it pays for itself with the energy it produces. And after it has paid for itself, it continues to feed the public its power for many years, completely in the black.
— Tom Marvin of Ashland is professor emeritus of physics at Southern Oregon University.