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Neighbors warm up to solar project

Coalition to launch largest rooftop energy installations in state
by: jim clark A new Solarize project in Northeast Portland figures to be the largest-ever residential solar project in Oregon.

Rooftop solar panels will sprout throughout Northeast Portland in coming months in what figures to be Oregon's largest expansion of residential solar energy.

The Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods just launched its second Solarize project. The group expects to recruit 2,000 homeowners and convince 400 to 500 of them to add photovoltaic solar panels on their homes.

That's more homeowners going solar, in one project, than occurred statewide until 2010.

'If they accomplish that, it will be sort of unheard of,' says John Patterson, owner of Mr. Sun Solar, a veteran Portland contractor hired to install the new systems.

The latest Solarize Northeast project comes as solar panel prices plummeted due to the impact of cheap, subsidized Chinese imports. More important, it marries two approaches that have been game-changers in residential solar energy: the community-based Solarize model, pioneered in Portland; and solar-panel leases that enable homeowners to add solar without a dollar in up-front cost.

Oregon residential solar installations tripled in 2010, after Portland launched the first in a series of Solarize programs, where neighbors band together to hire a contractor and attend workshops that walk them through the process.

'Solarize puts all the resources in one bucket for you as a homeowner,' says Robert Cross, president-elect of the nonprofit group Solar Oregon, and manager of Umpqua Bank's Alberta Street branch.

Solarize uses grassroots organizing to spread the word about solar. Northeast Portland volunteers will go door to door to sign up people, among other outreach efforts.

Solarize cuts the cost of going solar by 15 percent to 20 percent, largely due to bulk purchasing of materials and going with one contractor, says Lee Rahr, solar program coordinator for the city Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

In 2010, 1,068 homeowners added rooftop solar panels in the territories served by Energy Trust of Oregon, or about three-fourths of the state. Of those, 504 were part of Solarize programs, says Kacia Brockman, Energy Trust's senior solar program manager.

Penciling out investment

By this spring, Solarize projects will kick off in in Clackamas, West Linn/Lake Oswego, Gresham, Eugene and Union County. Rahr also has provided technical advice so other communities can replicate Solarize in Seattle, Boston, Milwaukee, San Jose and Santa Barbara.

Last year, solar leasing was introduced here, spreading solar to people who otherwise couldn't afford it. By the last quarter 2011, about half the people going solar in Oregon were doing solar leasing instead of buying the panels, Brockman says.

Cheaper solar panels also are spurring demand. 'Three years ago, I was selling photovoltaic systems for $10 a watt, and now they're $5-something a watt,' Patterson says.

'The price of solar has never been more affordable,' Rohr says. 'This is the time.'

For those Solarize Northeast participants with little cash on hand, loans may be available from Umpqua Bank's GreenStreet Lending as part of the program.

Mr. Sun Solar also will offer Solarize Northeast participants the option of leasing their system, in some cases for zero out-of-pocket cost. Adding the leasing option is like putting Solarize 'on steroids,' says Glenn Montgomery, executive director of the Oregon Solar Energy Industries Association.

The combination of low panel prices, easier financing, Solarize and the leasing option make going solar a great financial deal, regardless of the environmental benefits.

Here's how such a system would pencil out under Mr. Sun Solar's options for Solarize Northeast:

A typical Portland solar panel system, sized at 3 kilowatts, produces about 3,240 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, Patterson says. That's about one-third of the typical electricity usage in Oregon, costing about $324 a year at today's prices.

Typical installation cost for the average system will be $18,000, Patterson says. Energy Trust of Oregon now offers an instant rebate of $3,750 on that system, slicing the upfront homeowner cost to $14,250. (Energy Trust rebates are higher for Portland General Electric customers, but Pacific Power serves the target area.)

GreenStreet Lending expects to offer loans to many people so they don't have to come up with that sum.

In addition, that homeowner figures to get a federal tax credit, lowering their tax bill by $4,275 the following year, reducing their net cost to $9,975. Then, they can get a $1,500-a-year credit on their state taxes for four years, a total of $6,000.

That reduces the net homeowner cost to $3,975 for a system producing $334 in free electricity a year - more in future years as the price rises. As a pure investment, Patterson notes, that's a pretty good return on your money.

For those who don't want to put up money in upfront costs, Mr. Sun Solar will offer two leasing options. A participant can lease that typical solar system for about $35 a month for 20 years, Patterson says. During the next 20 years, that's $8,400 in lease payments, much less than the cost of the free electricity.

Or participants could prepay that lease with $7,140 upfront. Those folks would recoup most of that money by collecting $6,000 in state tax credits during the next four years. For a net cost of $1,140, they'd get 20 years worth of free electricity.

For more information about upcoming workshops for Solarize Northeast, visit: www.solarize.necoalition.org.