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Rieke may go solar

A proposal is in the works to add solar panels to the hillside along Bertha Court

HILLSDALE - The city of Portland and Portland Public Schools are working on a proposal to dot the hillside along Bertha Court with solar panels - enough to power more than 60 percent of Rieke Elementary School's current electricity needs, according to estimates.

'We're still putting all the pieces together,' said PPS Energy Specialist Catherine Diviney. 'But we are actively investigating it.'

If it were to go forward, the project would involve a three-way partnership coordinated through Renewable NRG, a Portland-based photovoltaic system design and construction firm.

Renewable NRG's Kevin Swanson, who gave a presentation to the Hillsdale Alliance in January, said the combination of state and federal tax credits can return 100 to 115 percent of a solar project's costs to an investing corporation. Meaning that Oregon corporations can actually make money, through decreased taxes, by installing solar panels.

In the case of the school district, which has no tax liability, this means that a partnership would be formed between an investing corporation and the school to be able to put the ground-mounted panels on school property.

Diviney said the ground-mounted panels have caught PPS's attention because conventional roof-mounted panels require better roofs than those that are on nearly all Portland public schools.

The panels would be in a relatively isolated piece of land, blocked on several sides by fencing to keep out potential vandals, and would also be designed to accommodate educational field trips.

Though the panels would be physically inaccessible by unauthorized visits, they would be highly visible along one of the main entrances to the Hillsdale Town Center. Portland's West District Planner Brian Sheehan said that means the city is interested in hearing public opinion on what the panels should look like. The most likely option would be a wave-like pattern or curved panels, but Sheehan said the panels could even spell out something, such as 'Hillsdale.'

Both Sheehan and Diviney stressed that many of the details on the project have yet to be ironed out - not the least of which is how the system would work if Rieke is rebuilt as part of PPS facilities plan.

If the proposal does go through, the system would produce about 100,000 kilowatt hours per year, which the district would buy from the company who invests in the panels. Diviney said depending on how the deal is structured, that may mean a slight financial benefit to the school district, but mostly it would translate into being more environmentally friendly and adding to the schools' educational opportunities.

Diviney said she expects to be able to present a complete report to the school board in a month or two and the public will then have time to comment on the proposal.

The federal tax credit that would fund part of the panels expires at the end of the calendar year, so Diviney said if the project does get approval from the school board, 'rest assured it will be completed by the end of the year.'

Diviney stressed: 'It's not a done deal, by any means.'

But, she said, 'we think it's a great idea.'