This is a guest post from Michael Andersen of Portland Afoot, PDX’s 10-minute newsmagazine for TriMet commuters.
TriMet’s plan to build a $366,000 solar project near PSU that’ll kick off $4,550 a year of electricity sounds like a nutty waste.
That’s certainly how it played in TriMet’s initial press release, and on the front page of The Oregonian Tuesday. When I saw those numbers (they’ve been slightly amended since the initial release) I was ready to pounce, myself.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the snarky news item I wrote up for our little commuting magazine: the more I learned about the project, the better I liked it. Now I think it’s a seriously clever project that’ll even sneak some much-needed money into the agency’s bottom line.
First, four seemingly damning facts:
– It’s a money-loser. Assuming energy prices rise 3 percent faster than inflation, the project won’t “pay for itself” until 2051, five years after its predicted expiration date.
– TriMet’s got lots of capital investment options with higher returns. For comparison’s sake, a new bus costs the agency $426,800. Last year, scrambling to find cash for its next MAX line, the agency saved $100,000 by scrapping preparations for a future stop in Moreland, near Reed College.
– It could have been spent elsewhere. The project will shake the last drops out of a 2005 federal rail grant that built the Green Line, so I suppose it might have been available for (say) building spots for LIFT vehicles to stop along the Transit Mall, though not for (say) bus service.
– The public is paying the full bill. Though TriMet will probably only be on the hook for $134,000 of the $366,000 pricetag, the rest will come from state taxpayers (a $100,000 BETC subsidy) and utility ratepayers ($132,000 from the Energy Trust of Oregon and PGE).
Now, three additional facts that didn’t, somehow, make it into the initial news release or the next day’s newspaper:
– TriMet had already been required to dress up the buildings. The city permit for the new Transit Mall required a “gateway treatment,” a potentially major decorative expense, at the otherwise sort of ugly MAX turnaround. Most of the ways to satisfy this requirement would not have generated revenue. This one does.
– The finished product is actually going to look pretty sweet. Note that this is not technically a fact. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
– It’ll convert capital grants to operating revenue. $4,550 a year isn’t much. But nearly every penny of electricity revenue that TriMet pulls out of these solar panels for the next 35 years will basically be a federal subsidy of TriMet’s operating costs. In an agency that keeps digging its way deeper into a long-term cash flow crisis, that’s a nice change.
That leaves one last problem: The solar panels are still heavily subsidized by the general public. But you know what? The public subsidizes solar power for a reason: It’s a technology we’ve decided to put a bet on. We can fight about that another day. Let’s not let it obscure the fact that TriMet found a clever way to stitch together a bunch of funding and save a little cash for its own constituents.
Though I am annoyed that I had to rewrite that snarky news item.