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Climate changes push Milwaukie to consider tripling solar-power production


Milwaukie shouldn’t have to replace a crucial bridge that became unusable after the extreme rains in December, Mayor Mark Gamba said.

The city doesn’t know where it will find the estimated $1 million for Riverfront Park emergency bridge replacement at the outfall of Kellogg Creek into the Willamette River, but the City Council went ahead and directed staff last week to hire a private construction manager for the new structure.

City officials are asking Clackamas County and the Oregon Marine Board for funding, because the county’s sewage trucks are being detoured from the water treatment plant, and the new boat launch is blocked just prior to the spring fishing season starting in March.

Gamba said that the disastrous December rains would not have happened if the United States had taken appropriate steps upon first learning about climate change.

“This is just one finite example of the costs of continuing to dither on this issue,” he said

Next week, Gamba hopes the City Council will take action against climate change by setting a goal of tripling Milwaukie’s solar energy production in the next five years. City officials propose to achieve this goal by organizing educational workshops and promoting solar companies that would offer a limited-time discount to citizens who sign up for an installation during the promotional period.

Milwaukie’s project is expected to cost about $4,000 in materials and to require a significant allocation of time for the city’s new sustainability director. However, Gamba said that such an investment pales in comparison to million-dollar emergency bridges and would pay dividends to the benefit of citizens for decades.

“Our job as the government is to look out for the people, prepare our cities for the future, and improve our society in every way that we can,” he said.

Milwaukie is considering a spinoff on the city of Portland’s model campaign, Solarize, that launched in 2009 and since has expanded to Florida, Vermont and dozens of cities across the country. Before the campaign launched, the upfront cost for a 3-kilowatt system in the Portland market was approximately $27,000. By presenting a full package of federal and state tax credits, utility cash incentives, contractor savings on marketing and lead generation, that 3-kilowatt installation cost less than $5,000. The first neighborhood collective purchasing effort in Southeast Portland resulted in 130 new residential systems in six months.

Details to be worked out

Charlie Fisher, an advocate with nonprofit lobbying group Environment Oregon, will be presenting information to the Milwaukie City Council on Feb. 18. He says homeowners can expect to break even on their investment after five to 10 years, and then you’re getting “free energy” for 10 to 20 years longer, up to the lifetime of the system. The systems are warrantied for 25 years, but they are expected to last much longer.

“We get one-tenth of a percent of our energy from the sun right now, and there’s so much more we can do,” Fisher said. “We have a really good synthesis between state action and local action that’s really going to drive the market for solar in Oregon.”

Gamba expects the City Council to work out the details of Milwaukie’s proposed Solarize program on Feb. 18; a formal vote is scheduled for March 1. The traditional model for a Solarize program is to put out a request for proposals, and then the city would choose the most competitive contractor. After receiving a grant from Northwest Solar Communities, Happy Valley’s program reached out to all the local solar companies in the area, saying that if they offered discounts to city residents, they would be featured.

“There are ways that the city can help protect our citizens from companies who, just like with every business, are not as scrupulous,” Gamba said.

In support of the program, the Happy Valley City Council voted to waive permit and plan review fees for solar installations through March. Additional information is available on happyvalleyor.gov, http://www.happyvalleyor.gov/community/programs/solar-initiative/ or by emailing program manager Jaimie Lorenzini directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

‘State action needed’

Cities have a role to play in promoting their own priorities and clean energy should be on every city’s priority list, Fisher said.

“The city is a trusted source in the community,” Fisher said. “These city-vetted companies are trusted, and you’re getting a deal from them. Those two things combined really expand the solar customer base.”

What about the “Portland sunshine” of overcast skies nine months out of the year? No problem, Fisher said. Even when there are clouds, solar panels are still generating electricity. And if your solar panels generate 80 percent of the electricity you use over the course of a year, then you only pay for 20 percent of your utility bill.

“Currently, you could say that the grid acts as your battery, and although battery technology is improving, it’s still more cost-effective to connect to the grid,” Fisher said.

There’s a bigger problem for people who can’t buy solar power, Gamba and Fisher agreed. Renters or people whose houses are under trees wouldn’t be able to invest in solar panels by connecting to Portland General Electric’s grid.

State action is needed so that people can buy panels in a community solar project, and PGE, Gamba and Fisher are all in support of extending the program. House Bill 4036 is intended to allow citizens to get PGE bill credits through “solar community gardens” that could be built on the roofs of schools, churches or any other public facility in the PGE service area.

“Due to my confidence in my council’s wisdom, I expect to pass a resolution of the entire council supporting this important first step at our meeting on Feb. 16,” Gamba said.

Gamba was part of a coalition of dozens of Oregon city councilors, county commissioners and mayors who urged state legislators to support solar energy in Oregon. He signed on to a letter in 2014 that argued for generating 10 percent of Oregon’s electricity from solar energy, which “would create a significant reduction in global warming pollution.” They calculated that reduction at 3.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year by 2025 — the equivalent of removing 730,000 cars from the road.

“The bottom line is that the biggest problem facing humanity today is climate change,” Gamba said.