Solar contractor defends TriMet’s $366,000 panel array, calling it ‘art’

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.

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