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Tapping the sun's energy around the clock

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Solar-plus-battery installation at Portland's main fire station will provide ongoing power source during emergencies

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Deputy Fire Chief Marco Benetti checks out the solar panels on the roof of Fire Station 21, on the Willamette River. The city has put panels on several stations.The downtown Portland fire station will be able to harness energy from the sun and store it, allowing emergency responders to keep doing their jobs in the event of a major power outage.

Portland General Electric awarded a $90,000 grant from its renewable energy fund to install the city's first solar-plus-storage facility, at Portland Fire & Rescue Station 1, 55 S.W. Ash St. The station also houses the agency's main incident-command post, including Fire Bureau administrative offices, and will serve as a hub for critical emergency response during a prolonged event that disrupts the electricity supply, says Marco Benetti, deputy chief of logistics.

The station was retrofitted in 2009, bringing it up to the current seismic code and making it less likely to collapse during an earthquake or natural disaster. The solar-plus-storage facility is more likely to remain intact during an outage when it's needed most.

Unlike traditional backup generators that run on fossil fuels, solar-plus-storage installations are designed to keep critical power loads functioning for a prolonged time with energy from a renewable power source — the sun — paired with batteries that store the power.

Station 1's current backup generator runs on diesel, but most of the bureau's other stations have generators fueled by natural gas with a propane backup, Benetti says. If those generators go down, if gas lines are severed, or if propane/diesel supplies were depleted during a blackout, those stations would be left in the dark after about three days, he says.

Staying power

This is the city's first foray into solar-plus-storage batteries.

"This is a cool project because it builds on that resiliency piece," says Andria Jacob, senior manager of energy programs and policy with Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. "Solar is renewable, but when it's dark, it's not doing anything for you." With the ability to store power in batteries, however, it can be used at night and the batteries replenished during the day.

"Plus, it can be sitting on the grid as a resource for a utility," she adds. "So that's a value to the whole system — the utility and the community at large because it reduces the amount you have to pay the utility."

The new 30-kilowatt system is projected to save $3,300 a year in electricity costs. Eighty percent of the project's cost comes from PGE; the remaining 20 percent, or about $22,500, comes from city coffers.

The project is still in the design phase, so how long the station will be operational using stored energy depends on the type of batteries used, Benetti says.

It helps fulfill the city of Portland's Climate Action Plan goal of purchasing or generating 100 percent of all electricity for city operations from renewable resources, with at least 15 percent from onsite renewable energy systems, like solar or biogas, by 2020.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Deputy Fire Chief Marco Benetti closes the hatch to the roof in the room where much of Fire Station 21s solar heating and electrical system is.The city now is at about 9 percent for the latter goal, but the solar-plus-storage project coupled with another new solar installation gets Portland closer to 10 percent, Jacob says. The Portland Police Bureau's North Precinct recently was topped with a 63-kilowatt solar electric system projected to reduce power purchased from the electric utility by about 6 percent and save $6,650 a year in electricity costs.

Training function

Station 1's installation also will serve as a training ground for firefighters learning how to safely respond to fires and other emergencies involving solar panels.

If the solar-plus-storage installation is successful, it could be implemented at other fire stations. The city also is exploring the possibility of creating a citywide network of solar-plus-storage facilities, Jacob says. Possible locations include community centers, libraries and major neighborhood landmarks, such as the Oregon Food Bank.