Salem Electric’s photovoltaic program provides incentives for members who want to take control of their energy future

By Ted Case

On August 21, 2017, the area around Salem was a prime viewing spot for a total solar eclipse that captivated the thousands of visitors who flocked to Oregon’s capital and looked to the sky.

The crowds have long since subsided, but the power of the sun continues to captivate Salem-area residents who are interested in taking control of their energy future.

For many households, getting involved in rooftop solar can be a daunting technical and financial challenge. For the past decade, however, members of Salem Electric have had access to incentives that can make rooftop solar a reality in the cooperative’s West Salem, downtown, North Salem and Keizer service territory.

According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, 72,751 Oregon homes are powered, in part, by rooftop solar. SEIA notes that solar prices have fallen 34% during the past five years, but the cost of a rooftop solar array still is often beyond the means for many households. Oregon state tax credits for renewable energy have ended. With federal tax credits for rooftop solar constantly on the chopping block, there are few incentives available to lower the cost of installation.

Britni Davidson and a cooperative member
Salem Electric’s Member Service Manager Britni Davidson, right, says Salem Electric’s solar incentive program is a conversation starter for the cooperative’s members.

While Oregon electric cooperatives have a decades-long tradition of investing in energy conservation, weatherization and other programs their members have shown interest in, photovoltaic programs are still relatively new. To encourage the adoption of new technologies, in 2009 Salem Electric created a PV program with origins rooted in the cooperative business model.

“Our members asked for it,” said Salem Electric General Manager Tony Schacher.

Like other Oregon electric cooperatives, Salem Electric’s power supply is more than 90% emission free because of its reliance on federal hydropower from the Bonneville Power Administration. Despite Salem Electric’s clean-energy legacy, Schacher knows there is still consumer interest in doing something for the environment.

“Our program has been a good way to help spur on renewables for members who are concerned about their carbon footprint,” he said.

Since the program was established, Salem Electric has provided incentives— which are available to their residential and general service members—for 68 net-metered PV projects totaling 420 kW. The cooperative provides a $300 incentive per kW installed, with a maximum incentive of $1,500.

Salem Electric is well-known for its connection to the communities it serves. Unlike other cooperatives with sprawling service territories, Salem Electric is a compact 17½  square miles with its headquarters in West Salem. This proximity to their members has helped shape the conversation around renewable energy.

“We are well-connected to our members and are talking to them as they explore PV,” said Britni Davidson, Salem Electric’s member services manager.

Tom Tomczyk, a resident of Keizer, is one of these members. Tomczyk had long been interested in generating his own electricity in what he called a “clean, quiet, low-impact way.” He became interested in rooftop solar two and a half years ago but was discouraged by all the trees shading his roof. However, that did not deter him from climbing the roof with a clinometer, estimating winter and summertime sun angles, and determining how much trimming was necessary for the roof to be suitable for solar. Tomczyk concluded solar was technically feasible, but then came the question about financing.

Salem Electric member Tom Tomczyk, right, shows Salem Electric Energy Analyst Marcos Huerta the invertor for his rooftop solar unit.

“I can say with certainty that the tax credits offered by state and federal governments and the cash incentive paid by Salem Electric played a decisive role in my own decision to invest in a PV system,” Tomczyk said.

He has since added panels to his roof, hoping there will be excess power generated at his house so he can explore buying an electric vehicle and further reduce his fossil fuel use.

Other Oregon electric cooperatives have similar incentive programs. Umatilla Electric Cooperative, headquartered in Hermiston, has a solar and small-scale renewable energy program that will pay $500 per rated kW, up to $5,000. There are also options for consumers interested in solar energy but who may not have the opportunities for rooftop solar.

Eugene-based Lane Electric Cooperative and Redmond-based Central Electric Cooperative both have installed community solar programs that enable members to subscribe to receive energy production from partial or entire solar panels and see that energy credited on their monthly bill.

A National Rural Electric Cooperative Association study concluded that half of the nation’s cooperatives have solar offerings for their members through incentive programs, projects they own or joint projects with other co-ops.

For Davidson, even the prospect of solar energy for Salem Electric’s members has benefits for the co-op.

“It’s always a conversation starter,” she said.