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Oregon cowboy town promotes solar energy


PENDLETON, Ore. >> A cowboy grasping the reins of a bucking bronco has long been the image of this farm and ranch town. It’s the emblem of the annual Pendleton Roundup, a celebration of the city’s colorful past, when pioneers on the Oregon Trail settled the prairie.

Today, solar panels might just outnumber cowboys.

Rural Pendleton is blazing an unlikely renewable energy trail, offering no-interest loans to spark interest in solar power and a group-buy philosophy to get better prices. More than 50 residents installed systems last year, and the program was expanded to more residents and to include businesses this year.

Oregon earned a reputation for being a green leader years ago, with adoption of the first bottle bill in 1971 to encourage recycling and efforts to keep its beaches public.

However, many green efforts stem from the state’s populated — and more liberal — west side. They’re less likely to be found in Oregon’s ruggedly conservative agricultural country.

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“We’re a Western community, and we’re proud of that, but we’re also in the 21st Century,” city manager Larry Lehman said. “There are people here who are interested in renewable energy, and we wanted to make it easy for them.”

The cost of solar systems — even small ones — run in the thousands of dollars, and having the cash up front is a substantial impediment.

Metropolitan Portland also has pursued solar power in recent years, but other states and communities had long since taken the lead. Some have issued bonds, then used the money to issue clean energy loans that are tied to property taxes. In San Jose, Calif., city employees bought in to solar projects through their credit union,

Meanwhile, Pendleton had two pots of money sitting in sewer-related reserve accounts.

Why not put that money to better use, Lehman said.

“Way out here, if you want to have solar power, who do you call?” he asked.

Sprawling wheat fields and cattle ranches surround Pendleton, a not-so-sleepy city of 16,500 that sits more than 200 miles east of Portland. Cafes and shops line the bustling downtown streets, and a steady stream of customers shuffled in and out of Hamley’s World Famous Cowboy Outfitters, a well-known apparel and saddle-making shop established in 1883.

Industry has grown in recent years, but state and local government, agriculture and tourism remain the biggest economic drivers.

The city borrowed from the sewer account to offer no-interest loans of $9,000 each. The repayment schedule, over four years, is tied to residents’ tax returns each spring, when they receive refunds of state and federal renewable energy tax credits.

All told, Lehman estimates the program will cost the city only $10,000 in lost interest over four years.

In addition, some residents signed on to programs with their power company to receive credits toward their bills or direct checks for any extra energy they produce.

Community-based approaches like this are a wonderful solution for residents who struggle to come up with the cash needed to go solar, said Monique Hanis, spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, an industry trade group.

“Many people don’t know how to get started and many face challenges with financing, so these kinds of programs make it as easy as buying a car,” she said. “And the price point for some folks is about the same.”

Amy Ford, a state employee, said the loan program made installation of solar power possible for her century-old home, because she otherwise didn’t have the up-front money. Ken Abbott, a retired postal employee, didn’t use the loan program but took advantage of the lower installation prices that resulted from the large number of buyers.

For him, the proof is in his power bills — three months last year at $9.40 each, just the basic service charge.

“That looks nice, when you get a bill like that,” he said.

Abbott estimates the $14,500 system will end up costing him about $3,000 total after tax credits and savings on his power bills.

The city is making 75 more loans available to residents in 2011 and recently set aside $1 million for businesses interested in pursuing solar energy. In the first two weeks after that announcement, 45 businesses signed up for assessments to determine their energy needs and how much a system would cost.

Not everyone is sold on the idea.

Kirt Skinner owns the building across the street from the cowboy outfitters. The 75-year-old wheat farmer and retired insurance man equates installing solar panels to adding an elevator to his aging building, where the retail space is already rented.

“Why would I spend $300,000 if it’s not going to help me in my lifetime,” he asked. “Solar is fine, if I could see it’s going to make it better for me in the long run, but who has that kind of money?”

The biggest question anyone asks is how the program will affect their wallets, said Keith Knowles of LiveLight Energy, the solar contractor hired by the city.

“It’s crazy that a rural community with conservative, agricultural roots would take this on,” he said. “Or maybe it isn’t crazy in a community where they make their living on nature and the power of the sun.”

Knowles estimates each residential system will provide about one-quarter of a home’s power, but the savings will increase as power rates go up.

Ford wishes she could say the decision was purely the responsible choice for the environment, but acknowledged that money was a big factor. She said the system will have more than paid itself off in 15 years when her contract ends with Pacific Power Co., which is paying her for energy she produces.

“It’s not very often that you do things that are good for the environment and benefit you,” Ford said. “Normally it costs you money to do things the responsible way. I would say that’s a nice benefit.”

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