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Empowering a Community Through Public Solar Initiatives

Collaborating to create a community energy project.

I have been part of the Delta Energy Club at Columbia Gorge Community College for a year and a half now, while obtaining my Renewable Energy Technology AAS. My predecessor and former Delta Energy Club President, Bob Calvert along with other motivated Renewable Energy Technology students, formed the Delta Energy Club (DEC) almost three years ago. The Club aims to encourage renewable energy and sustainable design through informing local community members of alternatives to current energy models. In turn, we get a hands-on education in navigating local and regional bureaucracy.

Bob Calvert, joined the Forums-to-Action (F2A) program in fall 2010 in hopes of catalyzing a project surrounding community renewable power. In February 2011, a small Clean Energy Forum was held on campus that centered on the best approach to planning and implementing a project that allowed CGCC students’ skills learned in the RET program and applied it to a community project, which directly aligned with the mission of DEC. After the F2A Forum, a strategic committee including members from the college, the city and Wasco County formed to plan our next steps in organizing a project.

The team agreed to an initiative the Obama administration had springboarded to call student leaders into a conversation around developing clean energy solutions in the spring of 2011. At this meeting, there were several local and state energy experts to moderate the discussion and offer their own opinions on renewable energy. Through the discussion, the community renewable park idea began to draw traction. Several locations for a community energy park were talked of and methods to convey innovative and effective use of renewable energy technology in the public sphere were recommended.

Discussions swirled around using wind versus solar technologies, financing, where to locate the site, accountability systems, and maintenance. Students and some faculty of CGCC wanted to install a solar array at the college, but discovered difficulties when considering the student liability of rooftop maintenance. We centered on The Dalles Discovery Center as a prime location, but knew it would be a struggle to work with the Gorge Commission because of strict scenic area ordinances in place. Determining a funding vehicle would also be a challenge because of the rarity of community renewable projects. The cards were stacked against us.

In winter 2012, we became aware of an EPA P3 grant that was made available for community energy projects that utilize an educational component in the design. Katrina Montoya (RET Certificate Graduate and WOWE Scholarship winner), worked diligently trying to acquire the $15,000 phase one award and $60,000 phase two award. Katrina helped mobilize the entire club to gather all information on current energy projects and their public approval, financing, benefit to communities, improving quality of life, educational values and feasibility.

Besides skilled coaching from the staff at Focus the Nation through this process, we also received support from The Dalles Mayor, James L. Wilcox; Mid-Columbia Council of Governments, John Arens; Northern Wasco County PUD, Dwight Langer; and other government officials including US Senator Jeff Merkley. Although DEC didn’t receive the grant, the support and awareness we generated started to turn some wheels and bring focus to the project.

Advocates behind the scenes suggested we simplify the project idea and stick to a proposal with the least amount of complexities. After plenty of debate, dead ends and breakthroughs, including a solar feasibility study at The Discovery Center, the DEC and supporters have narrowed down a project plan that is ready for the Columbia Gorge Commission’s approval. This coming winter the DEC will present The Discovery Center Community Solar Park to The Dalles Planning Commission. Most recently, we received letters of approval for the project from the Wasco County Commission Chairman and the City of The Dalles. It’s been a rolicking ride full of roadblocks and solutions, but we’re looking forward to what comes next in 2013. For more info on the project itself check out or our project page at Focus the Nation.

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