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.

34 responses to “Solar contractor defends TriMet’s $366,000 panel array, calling it ‘art’”

  1. Michael,
    Glad you got the plus of using capital dollars to lower operating costs. That’s what businesses do. That is also what investing in light rail does….serving more riders at lower cost per ride. Thanks for this piece.
    Re power, I hope we can get to where the wind and the sun power MAX and Streetcar and not Boardman.

  2. In my mention of this project over on the November open thread, I object to TriMet’s technically-absurd claim that the project will produce “67,000 kW of power per year”, as power is already work (or energy) divided by time. TriMet has corrected its press release, which now says 67,000 kWh (killwatt-hours) per year.

    But in my haste, my brain somehow turned 67000kWh into 67kWh; which prompted me to wonder why TriMet would pay that much money for something that produces 7.4W of power on average. The correct power level, of course, is 7.4kW on average, enough to power an house assuming you don’t turn the electric range, microwave, vacuum cleaner, and clothes dryer on at the same time. (Given how solar cells work, actual power levles are no doubt much greater in the day, and close to zero at night). It’s nowhere near enough energy to power even a small car (7.4kW is about 10 horsepower), let alone a bus or a MAX train, but enough to have an impact on the agency’s electric bill.

  3. Ya ya its all those things, but to me is just another example of how far TRIMET has left the stage as a transit district who’s job is to provide transit to people who need it!

    Service cuts, fare increases, but we got the trip planner, new supervisor vehicles, new administrative building, new streetcars that duplicate what we already have, and a brand new billion dollar light rail that will move people from bus to rail.

    Did I mention service cuts and fare increases?

    Trimet is spending like mad on everything but what people actually need.

    Just another day for the government and its minions. (which include me btw, at least until they figure out a way to get rid of me)

  4. I don’t think it’s worth arguing over this kind of small change. One bus wouldn’t have made much of a difference, and this kind of visible solar installation can have a psychological effect on people, getting them to think about where their power is coming from. Thanks for digging deeper into this and finding out there are real reasons for this project.

  5. The installation can be defended as a work of art, functional and aesthetic. Solar panel arrays are largely ugly atop roofs. While their purpose is functional, their perceived image is clownish. This solar panel installation makes a brilliantly artistic statement about the future.

    Rooftop photovoltiac solar panels will become the most important energy supplement to our electric grid. Light rail will become the most important replacement for our sick infestation of automobiles. Buses alone are insufficient and work best in conjunction with light rail.

    Tri-Met is doing better than most transit agencies despite anti-gubmint naysayer natterings.

  6. I like the design, so if its merits are for those purposes only, then great.

    But if it’s to generate energy, which solar is terrible at doing at a reasonable cost, then we might need to reconsider our passion for “saving the planet” by putting solar everywhere.

    I hate to rain on anyone’s parade, solar will only play a fraction of our world’s future energy needs.

    Sometimes the truth hurts, and there’s reasons why it needs massive subsidies:

    It’s not efficient or cost effective, and you need a ton of solar panels to generate a decent amount of energy — not to mention battery storage for when it’s not sunny.

    Don’t believe the hype on solar. Best plant a shade tree over your home and save on A/C costs instead of a solar array.

  7. Bob:

    Let’s say I have a home.

    I want to have solar on it.

    1) How much energy will I get if I max out a south-facing roof (i.e., what types of appliances can I expect to power)?

    2) How much will it cost w/o subsidies?

    3) When will it pay for itself, subsidies included?

    It’s a terribly inefficient technology with small-world applications, especially in rain-drenched Portland. I could care less about a solar array projects in areas that get lots of sun. Portland is not one of those places (and please don’t retort with how much solar Germany uses, I already know this).

    As I said in my previous post, it’s much more environmentally friendly and cost effective to plant a nice shade tree in your yard and save on cooling costs.

  8. Solar is already at grid parity (unsubsidized on the consumer side, but including current manufacturing subsidies) in some sunnier parts of the world, such as spots in Australia mentioned in this article:

    I agree that at the current time, unsubsidized home rooftop solar is not such a great deal in the Portland area, compared to energy efficiency upgrades, home insulation, shade trees where practical, etc.

    However, flat-roofed buildings which are tall or wide enough to not receive shade, PV is an option, as are open urban spaces that receive sun but which are not otherwise utilized by a large number of people, such as TriMet’s turn-around for the Green/Yellow lines. (The other turn-around would not be a good idea, as it is shaded by structures on all sides. But the Green/Yellow turnaround has a big open view to the south, thanks to the I-405 trench.)

    Another great place for solar is over “carport” style structures that grace numerous large apartment complexes. A support structure is a large component of the cost of a solar installation. If you’re already propping up prefab rooftops (especially if they are wired for lighting), adding PV to the mixture is more cost-effective.

    (Or, for that matter, atop an installation of legally-mandated public art.)

    We are in the range now where it won’t take an order-of-magnitude leap to make unsubsidized solar price-competitive with other sources, but rather a combination of multiple smaller improvements and mass-market efficiencies.

  9. I am compelled to offer an explanation that defends counter-argument to the claim (from ws) that solar photovoltiac “isn’t” our major energy replacement source. PV has major future energy supply potential as it is well-known to offer ‘near’ and completely off-the-grid capacity. No other major energy source can operate off the grid nor without more technology to supplement electrical power. Hello.

    My would repeat another argument that PV energy “conservation potential” is also greater than more typical energy supply systems but won’t. But as such, PV is therefore an indispensable backup energy source. Totally capable battery pack recharge system, etc, etc. Shut up… Debate over…

  10. Strictly speaking, Al, that’s a grid-powered rechargeable electric bus, accompanied by a solar array that feeds the grid. One need not necessitate the other.

    (Yes, I’m aware of the awkwardness of the construction “need not necessitate”.)

  11. Wells:

    I am not against this project, considering it looks pretty nice and compared to other facades that would cost a lot anyways.

    For a facade that at least returns $ each year, that’s pretty good.

    However, it seems solar proponents need to do a lot of convincing in order to get people on board.

    If it were so great, more people would be installing them, when the reality is their applications are limited and overall energy output low.

  12. awkwardness of the construction “need not necessitate”.

    Well Bob, if you can construct your sentences without awkwardness, then I just don’t know how I can take anything you write seriously!

    A linguistics professor was lecturing to his English class one day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”
    A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”


    10. Two solar panels walk into a bar and order Light Beers.

    9. A windmill walks into a bar and orders something that blows everyone else away.

    8. A solar panel and a windmill walk into a bar full of Oil Men, and are never seen again.

    7. A renewable energy scientist walks into a solar array and asks a panel Watt it could do for him.

    6. A solar panel in a bar starts up with one of the hot customers and asks “is that a Biomass in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

    5. Two solar panels walk into a barn, and step outside immediately, because it was too shady.

    4. A guy with a solar panel fetish takes two of them home, gets them in bed, turns out the light, and nothing happens.

    3. Two solar panels walk into a bar. The bartender asks “what can i get you?” and the solar panels say “anything except a seat in the shade.”

    2. Ask not what your clean energy source can do for you, ask Watt you can do for your clean energy source.

    … and the #1 clean energy joke is:

    1. A solar panel walks up to a windmill and teasingly says “your life is nothing but one long blow job”.

  14. A voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

    Good one!

    [nnn] walk into a bar

    You’ve stumbled upon (into) my favorite form of joke construction. For example: A termite walks into a bar and says, “Where is the bartender?”.

    So is the top 10 list attributable to you?

  15. It has been a while since I’ve posted (maybe not since I taught Al how to use HTML tags, you’re welcome), but I wanted to thank a

    For his last twists. Sometimes the commentary gets a bit heated on this blog and it is nice to have a bit of humor injected in to the conversation from time to time. Thank you, Al.

  16. Zef (comment #4), to play devil’s advocate: it seems to me that the downside of an iconic solar project like this is that if it does indeed get people “to think about where their power is coming from,” they may also start thinking about how much it actually costs, and then realize that the annual ROI of a $360,000 solar project is probably lower than, well, the ROI of on a new bus. Which then gives solar a bad name.

    On balance I’m in favor of putting long-term bets solar myself, but we could easily find out in 20 years that solar power was never going to be affordable compared to waves or tides or mitochlorians or whatever. Today, the chief financial benefit solar panels bring to any project are warm fuzzies, and those depend on solar panels continuing to provide warm fuzzies.

  17. waves or tides or mitochlorians or whatever

    “midichlorians” :-)
    (Which I hate, by the way, lest anyone think otherwise!)

  18. Oh yea, I forgot, I personally did not come up with that top 10 list, I had it from somewhere…

    Now that you bring up the top 10, here is a good Letterman joke regarding the environment:

    “Fall is my favorite season in Los Angeles, watching the birds change color and fall from the trees.”

  19. Al M.: Now if TRIMET rolled out a SOLAR POWERED BUS, everybody would be impressed!

    Bob R.: Strictly speaking, Al, that’s a grid-powered rechargeable electric bus, accompanied by a solar array that feeds the grid. One need not necessitate the other.

    That’s a rather peculiar dismissal of the idea, but not inconsistent with the anti-bus rhetoric provided here.

    After all, the lights installed at the South Mall Terminus “need not necessitate the other” (solar panels). Thus should TriMet’s latest foray in writing blank checks for all things “rail” while crying poverty when it comes to the bus system should be dismissed but is somehow lauded as some great scheme to save money (when it’s been proven it is impossible to considering all related costs throughout the lifespan of the project.)

    We’re spending $1.57 million for the solar panels ($1.2 million for the steel structure that exists ONLY to support the solar panels, and $370,000 for the solar panels itself that must be affixed to the steel structure as they cannot free-float in the air) that could have been used towards energy efficient buses or even a demonstration electric bus which Al has done considerable research into what other countries are doing…but sadly in Portland, we rely on 21 year old technology on a daily basis. At $450K a bus, or $45K for the local match required for federal funding, TriMet could have purchased nearly 35 new buses.

    35 new buses to reduce fuel burn, increase reliablity and ultimtely improve customer satisfaction? Or a solar panel array that will power lights for a non-revenue station, located in an area that is closed to the public, and have no meaningful impact on the transit system or its riders? Just like TriMet’s spending much of its AARA funding on non-public things like re-roofing Elmonica, installing new concrete at Center and Merlo, building a new fueling garage at Merlo and A/C at Center Street — while other transit agencies have bought new buses and built transit centers to directly benefit the public.

  20. it seems to me that the downside of an iconic solar project like this is that if it does indeed get people “to think about where their power is coming from,” they may also start thinking about how much it actually costs, and then realize that the annual ROI of a $360,000 solar project is probably lower than, well, the ROI of on a new bus.

    That’s a good idea.

    Of course, Portlanders would be saddened to hear that riding TriMet’s MAX system is nowhere near as green as riding a King County Metro electric trolleybus.

    (For those not interested in the links: Seattle City Light gets 87.9% of its power from hydro, 6.4% from nuclear, 2.5% from coal, 2.1% from wind and 1.1% from “other”. PGE gets just 35.3% from hydro, 30.7% from coal (15 times as much as Seattle), 28.5% from natural gas (not even on Seattle’s radar), 4.3% from wind (does that even matter given the huge proportion of coal?), and 1.3% from waste methane, nuclear, biomass and “other”.

    And Seattle has a significant fleet of articulated, hybrid-electric buses that transport more people, using less fuel, than one of TriMet’s 40′ buses.

    And Sounder compared to WES…there’s no comparison that a nine-car Sounder train, with each car carrying 150 or so passengers in bi-level coaches, is extremely more efficient than the WES car that can’t even beat a lowly old TriMet bus in efficiency (considering the WES train requires three engines to move the same number of people as in two buses, with the result of getting 1 MPG versus 4-5 MPG on the bus).

    Yes. You should know where your energy comes from, and how much you use.

  21. That’s a rather peculiar dismissal of the idea, but not inconsistent with the anti-bus rhetoric provided here.

    It’s neither a dismissal nor anti-bus. Lighten up.

    We’re spending $1.57 million […] that could have been used towards energy efficient buses or even a demonstration electric bus

    I suppose “could have” is a relative term. Isn’t a large portion of this “gateway treatment” mandated by the public art requirement for capital projects such as these? The original article notes that the city required a gateway treatment at the south terminus. If you’re going to make a strong statement like that, please back it up with what you mean in terms of policies that need to change (both within and outside of TriMet’s control), and just how much money you’re talking about that could be peeled away for the purposes you list.

  22. $45K for the local match required for federal funding

    If the Feds really are willing to pay 90% of the costs, then why is it that the Federal grants that TriMet is getting for the new buses coming next year amount to well below 90%?

    WES car that can’t even beat a lowly old TriMet bus in efficiency

    Well maybe they could do better if the FRA didn’t require them to be built like a tank.

  23. And I should add that neither bus or WES is what is being discussed in this post, so both things are off-topic and, it seems, the money for the solar panels is coming from a fund restricted to projects and going to fulfill an obligation of the project.

    Overall, if I was going to contract you to do something, I would expect the money I give to be used to fulfill my request, regardless of whether you think my request is the best use of the money.

  24. Jason, I think, in addition to the narrow discussion of TriMet’s choices in this matter, there’s also room for a larger conversation about whether federal grants should have the priorities they do.

    I argued in the original post that TriMet’s narrow decision made a lot of sense. I’m personally agnostic on the second question.

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