Rural land with older energy grids creates ideal conditions for solar energy companies, according to a new industry report.
When it comes to finding places to set up shop, solar panel projects often consider two factors: first, how much sun the area receives; second, how close it is to the operation it is meant to power.
But according to a new study conducted by Laura Zapata, co-founder of Tennessee-based solar energy company Clearloop and energy nonprofit WattTime, there is another factor that companies should be looking at: how much dirty energy, such as coal and fossil fuel, the project would replace if installed. The dirtier the previous energy source, the more 'bang for your buck' a company gets reducing its carbon footprint.
Despite Oregon’s reputation as a leader in green energy the study highlights Oregon as one of the states with the most potential to improve its grid in the areas the sun shines the brightest, namely rural areas in the eastern part of the state.
Granted, there are grids that are dirtier than Oregon’s, and states with more sun. Oregon ranks 15th in the country for solar improvement opportunities. Although states like Oklahoma, Kansas and New Mexico rank higher, Oregon offers more key incentives to build.
In addition to subsidies like the Department of Energy’s Solar Rebate Program, Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order mandating a reduction in carbon emissions makes solar solutions more attractive.
With the political will for solar energy and swathes of potential land ripe for improvement, Oregon’s solar future will depend on private companies to play an investment role.
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Despite public support for solar energy being high, Oregonians who could benefit most from the environmental and economic impact of new solar power infrastructure are left out - namely rural communities and communities of color.
“When you look at things like penetration of solar electricity, what you find is that the communities getting left behind for solar are the ones who are also left behind with other issues, such as health and economic disparities,” says Zapata. “The structural divides that prevent access to clean air and clean water also prevent access to clean energy.”
One way that solar companies are trying to fix this problem is through new payment structures. Banks typically finance solar projects when there is a power purchasing agreement, whereby a company agrees to buy energy from the project upon completion.
These agreements are feasible for larger companies like Intel or Amazon, or by energy-hungry projects like data centers. But it means solar projects are often not cited where they could do the most good.
Clearloop attempts to solve this problem by making it easier for smaller companies to invest in solar projects without having to sign power purchase agreements. By partnering with larger companies that buy carbon offsets, Clearloop uses the offset money as an initial investment in the solar panel project.
“Instead of buying a tree, you’re buying a solar panel,” says Zapata.
While Clearloop has an interest in promoting areas where they have an operation, the company has not set up shop in Oregon. The study was meant to show how other solar industry companies get the best return on their investment, both financially and in mission.
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The will of Oregon companies to go green is another reason that makes the state a unique opportunity to become a leader in solar energy development. The more the demand for renewable energy grows, the more renewable energy companies will want to invest in the state.
“Oregon has a lot of companies and big data centers that are trying to clean up. Instead of co-locating with data centers, companies could instead look at their carbon footprint more holistically,” says Zapata.
“When you infuse solar companies into these rural areas, they often become the biggest taxpayers.”
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