Future shines bright for National Solar

John Schmitz/For the Capital Press National Solar customer Michael Paine, founder and owner of Gaining Ground Farm in Yamhill County, Ore., and his son Eli stand by a solar array that provides electrical energy to power his pumping system.

Company works with customers to find right equipment

By JOHN SCHMITZ

For the Capital Press

Falling solar panel prices may have manufacturers singing the blues, but you won't hear National Solar Inc. complaining.

That's because the Seattle-based company, with offices in Tualatin and Salem, earns its way not by making panels but by designing and installing photovoltaic systems for homes and businesses.

What's more, lower panel prices coupled with financial incentives for new solar systems have made the technology even more attractive.

National Solar, in Booth 71 of the Willamette Building at the expo, is a custom design and installation house that specializes in residential and small- to medium-sized commercial solar photovoltaic systems, said solar consultant Kim Berhorst, who manages the Salem office.

Many of those applications are in the agricultural sector.

"We do a lot of custom-designed systems for farmers," she said.

Visitors to the expo this year will have a chance to learn a lot about the various agricultural solar installations National Solar has done in the Northwest.

Part of the sales presentation deals with misconceptions many people have, such as the belief that the Northwest is too cold and gray most of the year for solar to work.

"People wouldn't think this, but Oregon gets, collectively, just as much sun as Florida," said Berhorst, who was raised on a small Silverton, Ore., farm.

Northwest solar systems are turning solar radiation into electrons practically all the time, Berhorst said. "It's kind of like your solar calculator." The only times solar panels are not working, she said, is at night or when shaded.

Berhorst said that National Solar is not dedicated to any one particular brand of solar panel or related product, which allows the company to better meet customers' individual needs.

"It's not something you can ball park," Berhorst said. "It's really a case-by-case thing. We don't do kits or standardized systems."

The company, which is a licensed solar contractor and Energy Trust of Oregon trade ally, provides turnkey design and installation services. They also help manage financing and incentive packages such as ETO rebates and state and federal tax credits available to qualified customers installing new systems.

Yet another major incentive attached to private solar systems is an Oregon pilot program started in 2010 that pays a premium for solar electricity generated by qualified participants.

In both the ETO and pilot programs, the utilities credit customers for each solar kilowatt-hour, so if a system generates more electricity in summer than is used, credits for excess energy sent back to the power grid are applied in winter, when days are shorter, Berhorst said.

Because the incentive programs are complex and always changing -- "Wading through all that is really a bear," Berhorst said -- National Solar consults with customers on which programs are best for their particular operations. The company also helps customers find financing.

One unique National Solar ag application in Oregon involves a Yamhill County organic produce grower, Mike Paine of Gaining Ground Farm, who wanted to upgrade his irrigation system.

Paine's 2 kilowatt direct current system and pump pushes water 140 feet up a hill to 10,000-gallon holding tanks. Then, at night, the water is gravity fed back down to an above-ground drip system in his produce fields.

Paine said the solar pump system cost a total of around $17,000, 65 percent of which should be offset in three years by energy savings, he estimated. That's not including savings in time to move hand lines and fuel costs.

Other farmers and ranchers have turned to National Solar to install systems that power their home-based offices, shops and outbuildings.

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