Part 3

Two recent opinion pieces describing Ashland’s renewable energy project demonstrate the practicality of meeting the city’s ordinance requirements with a solar farm. Part 1 (Nov. 2) and Part 2 (Nov. 9), found online at www.dailytidings.com, make the case for how the city can obtain a significant 10 percent of its electricity from very clean, local sources — and come out ahead financially.

Of course this sounds too good to be true. The reason it sounds that way is related to how we have come to understand what is true — and what isn’t. So we need to look at that.

One of the things that have given pause in City Hall to the project is the sense that it’s not affordable, due to a clause in our power contract that stipulates that we must pay for a certain amount of imported power even if we replace it with our own local power. This is called Take or Pay, and it is meant to assist several planning issues for Bonneville Power Administration. It turns out, however, that the clause is not a real obstacle for us, for several reasons.

First, I showed in Part 2 the effect on power rates even when Take/Pay is triggered. It is not a financial deal-breaker after all, especially in the long run. How can that be? It is because solar photovoltaics are economically positive past the dollar penalty that Take/Pay can impose. In the short run, Take/Pay could only add less than about 2.7 percent to a typical utility bill, and that decreases over time.

Secondly, as Ashland pursues its Climate and Energy Action Plan, it will necessarily encourage replacing as much natural gas and petroleum use with electricity as it can — because only electricity can have near-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Since Ashland is already near the Take/Pay threshold, significant new uses of electricity can only deactivate its trigger. In other words, one of our best and greenest strategies is to use more electricity where energy is needed!

Next, our BPA contract runs out in 2028, when we are into less than one-third of the life of the farm’s first set of solar panels. This does not imply that Ashland would find another supplier (our BPA rates are very good), but just that renegotiation could help rewrite the Take or Pay clause.

BPA is on record for supporting renewables other than hydropower. It is unlikely that among BPA’s 112 utility customers with the same contract as Ashland that several do not share our interest in renewable energy production. It’s hard to imagine that BPA isn’t looking for solutions to the general problem of how to integrate local solar farms into its utility customers’ systems. And it seems that a serious city petition to BPA to search out a solution would be worth the effort.

The City Council created the 10x20 renewable ordinance 14 months ago, and the staff has completed several quality studies for it. But staff changes and a tentative council have kept the apparent progress dangerously slow in regards to what must be done to meet the 2020 target. The year 2020 was not a random selection, as it may be a serious inflection point in the availability of incentives needed to make the solar farm as viable as I have claimed.

The immediate hurdle is the drafting of the RFP for the solar farm. It will take some staff effort, but require no special funding. We will need a county permit, a Pacific Power agreement, a variance from the land use board, and a geologic analysis. To clear the hurdle we need city action on these steps. In order for Ashland to make an informed decision on whether to have the solar farm it needs to receive a few proposals responding to a fine, clean RFP.

Yes, the city has its priorities. The contention here is that the planning and execution of a stronger, modern, interesting energy future is one of them.

— Tom Marvin is professor emeritus of physics at Southern Oregon University.