Downtown Portland Gets Its Biggest PV System

A public solar power project that raised a bit of a ruckus in Portland, Ore., because some saw it as a big investment with a small payoff is complete—and the agency that made it happen is working to convince people it made good fiscal sense.

TriMet, the public transit provider in the Portland metro area, said a 61-kilowatt (kW) system at the end of two light-rail lines near Portland State University went into operation in mid-February. The agency said the South Terminus array was expected to produce around 65,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy annually, “offsetting energy used by site lighting and two light rail electrical system buildings” and “adding clean energy to the Portland General Electric grid.”

image via Hennebery Eddy Architects

The project became something of a controversy—even in ultra-green Portland—when the Oregonian newspaper, reacting to a skeptical tweet by a local transit blogger, published a story with the headline: “TriMet’s $370,600 solar-power project for MAX at Portland State University will save only $3,680 a year.” As of last count, some 145 comments regarding the story had been logged, many of them along the lines of the one from “obamaservant,” who wrote: “Perfect candidate for more BS funding from the current administration … see Solyndra.”

With its announcement that the project was up and running, TriMet appeared ready to derail any critics.

“Estimated first year energy savings for TriMet is $4,880, based on 2011 rates,” the agency said. “Over the 25-plus-year life of the solar system, TriMet will earn more than 25 times its initial investment as the value of electricity generated continues to be credited against its power bill. This credit will increase as electricity rates rise over time.”

The agency said as well that while the solar installation cost was $366,000, its share was a mere $4,936, in large part because $263,151 in grants and credit offsets took the net installation cost down to about $102,849.

TriMet also argued that the city requires the prefabricated rectifier and signals buildings at the site be enclosed in order to screen the views from surrounding buildings. It said using wire mesh instead of solar panels would have cost around $75,000 less than solar panels up front, but given the incentives available for solar installations, solar was actually cheaper in the end. Plus, there’s the power it will produce.

The South Terminus system comprises 253 240-watt panels from SolarWorld, the big manufacturer based just west of Portland in Hillsboro. TriMet said South Terminus is the largest PV system in downtown Portland, although there are bigger systems outside the central business district, including a 100-kW system on a Powell’s Books warehouse and several systems that top 100 kW on schools in other parts of the city.

Skeptics and supporters alike can track the South Terminus system’s performance online.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.