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Beaverton Library plans for solar panels to offset city electricity costs

It may seem a bit counterintuitive in the wake of a cool, cloudy spring, but western Oregon's sun-shy climate is actually friendlier to solar power than, say, the Arizona desert.

'Solar panels in hot climates do not operate at full efficiency. Here, it's ideal,' says Cindy Tatham, the city of Beaverton's sustainability coordinator. 'Of course, it produces more in summer, so you can use it to offset (air-conditioning) costs.

'It won't produce as much in winter, but it will still produce power and chug along.'

That's the desired outcome of a plan to install solar panels on top of the Beaverton City Library in conjunction with a roof replacement for the 11-year-old building at 12375 S.W. Fifth St.

Funded with a $100,000 federal grant allocated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the 16.5-kilowatt solar voltaic system is expected to generate revenue for the city through a 'feed-in tariff' arrangement with Pacific Gas and Electric.

Based on 40 cents per kilowatt-hour generated, and around 16,848 kwh generated annually, the city is expected to reap about $6,700 per year - or $100,000 throughout the 15-year agreement - from solar energy the rooftop system feeds into the electrical grid.

'PGE is going to pay us a great price for the power we produce,' Tatham says, noting the dollar amount generated will be applied as a credit against the library's monthly electricity bill.

A kilowatt is equal to 1,000 watts. Using a light or appliance rated at 1,000 watts for one hour will consume 1 kilowatt-hour. So a 100 watt light bulb burning for 10 hours would use 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity.

The solar power, Tatham explains, will be channeled to where it's needed at a given time, not necessarily to fuel the library's lights and utilities.

'It hits the grid, then goes out to where the demand is,' she says. 'We have a meter that controls how much we make.'

Given the disruption the panels' installation will entail and the condition of the library roof, building officials determined a concurrent roof replacement, budgeted at $110,000, would be the most cost-effective approach.

According to a city report, the roof leaks, requiring frequent repair, and is nearing the end of its useful life. The solar panel racks require extra support imbedded in the roof surface with flashing around them to block moisture.

'They have to work in unison,' Tatham says of the projects, which are expected to begin this summer and be completed by Sept. 30. 'We have to have the panels in by April of next year no matter what (to qualify) for the feed-in tariff.'

An informational kiosk will be installed in the library to explain to visitors how the solar panels interact with the electrical grid and promote sustainable, 'green' energy use.

'Oregon is expected to be a leader in green technology, and that's something we want to show support for,' Tatham says.

Following a public hearing during the May 17 City Council meeting that generated no objections or questions, city officials are seeking a request for proposals that is exempt from the competitive low-bid process. Oregon law permits such an exemption when a governmental body can demonstrate how factors beyond cost would be beneficial.

City Councilor Marc San Soucie calls the solar project an obvious win for Beaverton and its aspirations to be a model green municipality.

'It's revenue coming in with no Beaverton money going out,' he says. 'It will be a source of pride for the city.'

While acknowledging the panels are a relatively small step toward carbon-neutral energy production, Councilor Catherine Arnold sees the project as a high-profile example of an alternative that works.

'To me, it's pretty important that a government agency points in that direction and gets (green energy) in the vernacular,' she says. 'It's cost-effective and it gets the word out.'