Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine

By Sean Rule, Math

When Jen and I first moved to Bend, we were stoked (still are, actually).  One of the many reasons for our stoke was the “300 days of sunshine” (cough) that Bend gets every year.  You see, we were planning to buy a home that had a large solar component.  Imagine our surprise when, even during the insanity of the real estate blitz of 2004, we only found one home with a few photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on its roof…facing east.  Here’s the sun, giving away free energy.  Here’s the Energy Trust of Oregon, paying you quite a bit to install solar.  Why the hesitation?

So, we decided to build our own home.  We made it passively solar (orienting the house to maximize sun in the winter and minimize in the summer), installed a solar hot water panel (facing south, the optimum direction for a solar panel in the northern hemisphere), and, later, added PV panels to make some power[1].  Our home has been great to us: we routinely pay around 25% of the Cascade Natural Gas “average” bill (due in large part to the passive solar heating), and our 2 – kilowatt (kW) PV panels crank out quite a bit of power.  We send the overage that we create back to the grid; according to the statement I got from Pacific Power, we “supported” over 11,000 kilowatt – hours (kWh) of energy last year; that combined with over 75,000 others, came to about 590 million kWh.

So, imagine our stoke rekindled when we found out COCC is installing solar panels on our campuses!  Go, us!  According to the Broadside, COCC stands to save around $340,000 in the first year alone in energy costs.  Go, us! Then I read this:

Estimated output (kWh) of high priority solar panel installations
202,000 (Bend Campus) 3,293,600 (Redmond Campus) 1,455,900 (Madras Campus)

I also read, in the Bulletin, that the Bend Campus will be installing about 90 kW of panels, while Redmond will install 30 (and “could” have “much more”).  Madras will get a whopping 1000 kW (or, 1 Megawatt!) system.  Go, us!

But, wait a minute…Bend will have 90 kW of panels, but only support 202,000 kWh of power?  Well, our little house in the NE corner of Bend only has 2 kW, but supported over 11,000 kWh.  So, if we had 90 kW, it stands to reason we could have supported around almost half a million kWh, or 2 and a half times as much as COCC.  What gives?

Oh yeah…COCC has tons of trees everywhere.  Where Jen, Max and I live, our largest tree is about 30 feet high, and won’t grow (in our lifetimes) tall enough to obscure any of our panels.  However, COCC’s beautiful Ponderosa pines will, unfortunately, cut into the solar creation.

No prob…just move the panels to Madras and Redmond.  I mean, there’s far less tree cover up there, so they’ll make tons more power!

But wait…we can’t!  A 2007 state law (House Bill 2620) requires that “developers of new or renovated public buildings to set aside 1.5 percent of their budgets for solar energy use or design.”  Not renewablesolar.   The reasoning?  Supporters of the bill claimed that the bill would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon, lower energy costs, and help solar retailers. In support, Representative Paul Holvey (D – Eugene), said, “too often we see new buildings built without consideration of utilizing renewables, and utility bills (are) mounting continually.  It’s incumbent upon government agencies to take the lead on clean energy use and efficient building design.”

Read that last bit again…he never once uttered the word “solar”.  He said “renewable”.  OSU – Cascades is (one day, maybe) hoping to use geothermal heat at our Bend Campus, an option that makes a lot of sense, seeing as we’re sitting on top of, well, volcanoes.  Is it just me, or does it seem somewhat silly that “renewable”, in the eyes of this act, has come to mean exclusively “solar”?

It seems strange to me that HB 2620 forces all new construction to use solar.  How about on the coast?  It’s not often totally sunny out there, but they’re breezy; why not wind (or tidal) power?  How about Portland?  Last I checked, when it is sunny there, it usually isn’t for very long.

In addition, the solar must be placed at the site, which means that we can’t move the PV cells to a much more logical installation: north of Bend, on the Redmond and/or Madras campuses.  Why?  Again, shortsighted wording of the bill: “…the inclusion of appropriate solar energy technology in the public building.”  If the author had just left off the “in the public building” part, then the panels could have “appropriately been installed elsewhere.

It seems to me, yet again, that a political agenda has been acted upon in such a way that, while good interests are at heart (renewable energy), the action (in this case, HB 2620) is quickly implemented in a way that causes us to, now, sit back and say, “duh!”

This wouldn’t be the first time congress folk passed verbose, 17th – century–esqe bills without checking the fine print for feasibility.  Remember the Federal “bank bailout” of 2008?  Part of that huge, ridiculous, flaccid document was the Bike Commuter Act, which promised bike commuters 20 bucks a month.  Sounds great…except the brain trusts that passed the law oversaw a huge loophole that excludes all non – profits (and non – profit folks tend to bike commute an awful lot).

Another example: recently, Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland) proposed HB 2228, which would make it illegal for any adult to pull a child in a bike trailer in Oregon.  His reasoning?  An OHSU study that “showed” that about 30 percent of riders who bike to work incur injury annually.  Um, how do you connect that to kids on bike trailers?  Maybe we should ban caulk guns, too, since gang violence is on the rise in America.   What…you don’t see the connection?

Anyway…am I still stoked about COCC’s solar creation?  You bet your pretty little kW’s I am.  I just wish we could act in the spirit of the law, and could exercise, as our own lovable Gene Zinkgraf said, the “opportunity to put in solar at a level that far exceeds the amount required for the projects…Redmond and Madras”, which I’m sure, at heart, is what the politicos wanted.

Gene, I’m voting for you next time elections roll around.  Consider yourself notified.   And yay us!


[1] During this process, we began to get a distinctly anti – solar vibe from some of Bend’s “developers”…when we proposed our plans to the “Architectural Review Committee” (a mutant, self – appointed entity, apparently only present in Bend), they initially nixed our solar panels, saying they’d be an “eyesore”.  When I reminded them that some people thought that 5,000 square foot homes with 12,000 square foot lawns in the desert were an eyesore, too, they looked at me as if I had two heads.

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4 Responses to Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine

  1. Sean says:

    Ha! That’s EXACTLY why we hang ours…proudly visible! Rock on, Grover!

  2. Tom Barry says:

    Bureaucracy and bill making – are you trying to make sense of it? Often the intentions of those who start the bill are lost or compromised in deliberations between parties. I would be interesting to go back to the Representative’s initial plan.

    You’re pulling our legs about the bike bill, right?

  3. Kevin Grove says:

    Great article, Sean. Hanging your clothes out on a line to dry is an eyesore in some Bend neighborhoods as well…..go figure! Change and anything out of the ordinary can sometimes be difficult in our society.

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