April 9, 2011; Source: ABC News | Historic Pendleton, Ore., population 16,354, is perhaps best known for the Pendleton Roundup, one of the largest and oldest rodeos in the United States. Now, it’s gaining notice as a solar energy hub, with the most solar installations, per capita, in the Northwest.  As such, Pendleton offers a creative model for making this renewable energy technology affordable and scalable in rural areas.

City leaders, in partnership with private vendors and nonprofit Solar Oregon and The Energy Trust of Oregon, have combined community education, bulk purchasing to reduce installation costs, and interest free loans for up to $9,000 to encourage participation in the “Solarize Pendleton” initiative. Repayment schedules for the four-year loans are tied to the schedule for associated state and federal tax credits that participating homeowners and businesses will receive. In a creative financing move, the City tapped two sewer related reserve accounts to capitalize the loan fund.

Fifty-six residents installed photovoltaic systems during 2010, the program’s inaugural year. For those loans, City Manager Larry Lehman estimates that the city will forgo no more than $10,000 in total interest payments over the four-year loan period. For that investment, it gains installation jobs and economic savings for its residents. In 2011, the “Solarize Pendleton” program will expand to invest $1.5 million in loans to homeowners and small businesses.

That Pendleton has emerged as a leader around solar energy breaks stereotypes. “It’s crazy that a rural community with conservative, agricultural roots would take this on”, said Keith Knowles of LiveLight Energy, the solar contractor hired by the city. “Or maybe it isn’t crazy in a community where they make their living on nature and the power of the sun.”

Other communities can learn from the city’s creative mobilization of what would otherwise be buried in low yielding reserve accounts. As City Manager Lehman said, “We’re a Western community, and we’re proud of that, but we’re also in the 21st century.  . . Why not put that money to better use?”—Kathi Jaworski