Living Amid Panels: A Brief Meditation On Baldock Solar Station

Visiting the Baldock Solar Station, just off Interstate 5 about 20 miles south of Portland, I was reminded of something a friend told me earlier this summer.

He had just returned from Italy where, along the way in rural areas, he was struck by the many solar arrays dotting the countryside. These weren’t monstrosities, I gathered from what he said, but were good-sized power producers scattered amid orchards, vineyards and other crops. It wasn’t like here, he said – and this might demonstrate our West Coast point of view – where beyond urban and suburban rooftop systems we think of solar power as coming in the form of massive arrays blanketing thousands of acres in the desert.

Baldock Solar Station

image via Portland General Electric

Perhaps installations like Baldock will herald more projects that are significant but not overwhelmingly large (although, it should be noted, not everyone thinks even a 1-megawatt array in the Italian countryside is so charming). There certainly are cost advantages to producing solar power closer to where it will be used, instead of hundreds of miles away. But beyond that, there might be value to keeping our new sources of power visible, or at least not hiding them. Baldock suggested to me that built amid our everyday lives, big solar — if it’s not too big — can serve an important function beyond the power provided, reminding us that we’re all energy users, and that there are solutions.

baldock solar station

Copyright © EarthTechling 2012

Baldock is a 1.75 megawatt system. Its sponsors, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Portland General Electric, call it “the nation’s largest solar highway project.” But standing next to it – a sprawling, tall-tree-shaded highway rest stop on one side, a cornfield on the other — it seemed neither out of scale nor obtrusive.

The system consists of 6,994 SolarWorld 250-watt panels. A 4-kilowatt home system would have 16 panels, so there’s a lot of silicon out there at the I-5 rest stop, and the panels cover between six and seven acres.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.