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Clouds Form On Solar Energy's Horizon

In a few weeks, Oregon energy regulators will decide a key legal question involving public-private solar projects across the state.

In the last few days, solar industry leaders are defending their booming business in the face of questions that cast a shadow of uncertainty.

But as Rob Manning reports, the case at the Public Utility Commission is just one cloud on Oregon's solar horizon.

When Senator Ron Wyden held a forum in Portland this week, he heard about gas prices and utility bills. But he also got an earful from Oregon’s budding solar industry.

Chris Robertson, with Peak Sun Silicon in Millersburg, asked Wyden to extend federal tax credits for his industry.

Chris Robertson: “There are companies all over America going under right now, because the solar investment tax credit has not been renewed.”

The worries over expiring tax credits are adding to heartache created by a legal challenge from Pacific Power, and the energy company, Honeywell. The challenge questions agreements like one signed last week involving Multnomah County.

Scott Reed: “A year ago, when you started working on it, it really did seem like a funky idea.”

That’s Scott Reed, with solar company, Sun Edison, congratulating county commissioners on their new partnership.

Scott Reed: “Up until recently, the only option available was to write big checks and take a deep breath, and hope that it works. Solar Two-point-oh is, this isn’t a construction project, it’s an energy service that’s being provided.”

But providing energy service is normally the job of utilities. So the question is how rules allowing a business to install solar panels and sell power back to the grid, apply, when governments and energy companies get together with the help of tax credits and public money.

Art Sasse with Pacific Power says there aren’t any rules to go by.

Art Sasse: “We’re not trying to shape those rules, we’re trying to simply ask the governing body ‘are you comfortable with current law, and the protections it offers the consumers?’ We’re confident that the commission will come up with reasonable rules that will protect consumers in terms of cost and reliability.”

John Volkman: “It seems to us that these sections of the law are pretty clear.”

That’s John Volkman, with the Energy Trust, a non-profit heavily involved in the kinds of public-private partnerships at issue.

Volkman filed a legal brief this week asking the PUC to avoid new regulations. He says projects are already working against the clock.

John Volkman: “The federal tax credits that are so important to these projects are due to expire the end of this year, and there won’t be enough time for these to come on-line, and go through all those processes.”

Sasse says that the timing of tax credits is a separate issue, and not as important as the underlying law.

Multnomah County commissioner, Jeff Cogen, says the law is clear – but the motivations of Pacific Power are not.

Jeff Cogen: “I do think if they were enthusiastically supporting the solar energy industry in Oregon, they wouldn’t choose this time to raise these objections. I think it’s clear that the timing is just terrible, regardless of what the underlying motivations are.”

Pacific Power officials point out that they have invested heavily in green power. And besides, they argue, Honeywell joined the legal action – and that company often benefits from the partnerships.

However, in a just-filed legal brief, Honeywell tends to argue that current rules and laws are clear enough.

Solar advocates say if PUC officials meet their July timeline, if they don’t respond with new rules, and if there’s not an appeal, then projects should proceed just fine.

Those are big ifs.

Pacific Power has it’s own “if.” They argue if they hadn’t filed this legal petition, someone else would have raised the issue — perhaps in the form of a costly lawsuit.