Oregon’s Community Solar Program

Date: 7 Jul 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In 2016, Oregon passed SB 1547, the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Act, which raised the Renewable Portfolio Standard and made solar accessible to homeowners, renters, schools, businesses, and governments through community net metering. The community solar program’s maximum capacity is set at two and a half percent of each utility’s 2016 system peak, enabling an estimated 160 megawatts of community solar. At least ten percent of the total capacity must be allocated to low-income electricity customers.

The Transition Act is designed to end Oregon’s coal consumption by 2030 and replace it with clean, renewable energy. SB 1547 states that, by 2040, 50 percent of Oregon’s electricity must come from clean, renewable sources, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and some biofuels.

Oregon’s community solar program sets aside 25 percent of capacity for projects that are government or nonprofit owned, or smaller than 260 kilowatts, which will foster the growth of small-scale community solar. There is a cap of three megawatts for any given project. The Transition Act also mandates that, by 2025, renewable energy projects with a generating capacity under 20 MW fulfill at least eight percent of Oregon’s electricity needs.

Watch the top state community solar programs progress in our Community Solar Tracker.

Embracing the Whole State

The Oregon Community Solar Program currently allows customers from three major utilities to draw from solar arrays. Importantly, each provider serves a different region of Oregon, therefore distributing access to community solar across the state. Portland General Electric serves the City of Portland and its surrounding area; Pacific Power, other parts of western, southwestern, and northern Oregon; and Idaho Power, much of eastern Oregon.

Portland General Electric and Pacific Power combine to produce about 70 percent of Oregon’s power, with Idaho Power serving another small portion of the population. However, about 25 percent of Oregon’s population, primarily centered in Central Oregon, is not served by any of these utilities. Interestingly, Central Oregon is the primary source of solar energy in the state.

Figure 1: Electricity Provider Map, featuring Pacific Power (Gold) and Portland General Electric (Green)
Image Courtesy of Energy Trust of Oregon, 2017
Idaho Power Company Coverage Map, Including Eastern Oregon
Image Courtesy of IDACORP, 2021

Promoting Small Partners

A key component of Oregon’s Community Solar plan is ensuring a wide array of customers. For example, a firm cap prohibits any single customer from accounting for more than 40 percent of a given project’s capacity, or 2 MW of total capacity across all projects. Additionally, 40 percent of project capacity must be reserved for residential or small commercial customers.

Focus on Low-Income Accessibility

Oregon’s Community Solar Program features multiple components designed to promote accessibility for low-income residents. Ten percent of any given project must be set aside for low-income customers. Additionally, low-income customers must receive a discount of at least 20 percent on every project, meaning that the sum of the monthly fees associated with project participation must be at least 20% lower than the value of the bill credit rate. Low-income customers are also exempt from the $1.50 kW DC/ month participant fee. Oregon defines a low income customer as either a customer who meets a specific, household size adjusted income threshold, or an affordable housing provider that pays electricity costs for customers, so long as the housing provider shares at least 75 percent of savings with customers.

The Community Energy Project (CEP), a Portland nonprofit, serves as the Low Income Facilitator for the program. The organization prioritizes the approval of projects that offer at least a 50 percent discount to low-income customers. Furthermore, these projects receive a special label of “low income designation.” CEP is also committed to recruiting participants who live in rural communities, are members of communities of color, are seniors, or are disabled. This focus on facilitating low-income participation goes towards ILSR’s fourth principle of renewable energy: access for all.

Ensuring a Fair Price

The administrative costs of the program are fully funded by an initial application fee of $5 per kW DC, and an ongoing participation fee (waived for low-income customers) of $1.50 per kW DC/month. Customers subscribe to a certain portion of a given array, and if that portion produces more energy than the customer uses, the unused energy will initially be reimbursed at a rate from $0.085 per kilowatt hour for Idaho Power customers to $0.112 per kilowatt hour for Portland General Electric customers – mirroring standard local electricity rates at a 1 to 1 ratio.

There is a 2.18 percent yearly increase on rates, rather than attempting to continue the floating rate, for the sake of transparency, predictability, and consistency. Therefore, customers can expect a full return on all of their unused power. Furthermore, the Oregon Public Utilities Commission expects meaningful savings for all low-income customers, based on the minimum 20 percent discount on rates. Subscription fees for low-income customers will never exceed the incoming credit.

Beginnings of Implementation

After a long period of anticipation, community solar projects in Oregon are sprouting up. Four 2.5 MW farms, all in Portland General Electric territory, finished construction and are ready to supply electricity to a number of partners. Early estimates suggest that the first year of the program will boost total solar output in Oregon by 2.5 percent.

ILSR Principles

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance advocates for four key values in community energy policy – a good policy should address all four points. Oregon’s program contains components of all four. The first is tangible benefits. Low-income customers will receive meaningful savings and all customers are compensated for their surplus energy at the market price of electricity. The program has not been extant long enough to definitively measure aggregate savings, but early estimates predict average annual savings of five percent for all participants.

The second principle is flexibility of ownership. Solar garden ownership in Oregon is open to utilities and third parties. However, subscriptions are only available to customers of three utilities.

The third principle is that programs must be additive– they supplement, rather than detract from or replace other clean energy initiatives. They also should not shift customers away from self generation. Since 2003, Oregon has administered a solar electric incentive program, available to Portland General Electric and Pacific Power customers. Customers receive cash incentives of 20¢ to 25¢ per watt installed, which can cap out at between $1,000 and $2,000. This program has not been changed by SB 1547.

The fourth and final principle is access. The program is meaningfully cheaper for low-income Oregonians, a major component of access. The Low Income Facilitator’s focus on enrolling other marginalized communities is also excellent. Projects cater to a fairly wide variety of customers, with the low-income allotment, the residential and small commercial allotments, and the government and non-profit allotments. The program’s geographic reach is acceptable, but further expansion to central and eastern Oregon would improve accessibility. Finally, while solar nonprofit Energy Trust has worked on increasing Indigenous access to clean energy, the Low Income Facilitator and other Project Coordinators should expand community solar access to Oregon’s seven Reservations. Oregon is home to over 100,000 Indigenous people, who make up over three percent of the total population.

For more on solar in Oregon, check out these ILSR resources:

Learn more about community solar in one of these ILSR reports:

Designing Community Solar Programs that Promote Racial and Economic Equity
Minnesota’s Solar Gardens: the Status and Benefits of Community Solar
Beyond Sharing — How Communities Can Take Ownership of Renewable Power

For podcasts, videos, and more, see ILSR’s community renewable energy archive.

This article was originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter or get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

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Aidan Checkett

Aidan Checkett was an intern on the Energy Democracy team in 2021. Aidan had previously worked on multiple political campaigns and in local infrastructure planning, and is passionate about local change, climate justice, and good administration.