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Paving the way toward solar for Oregon’s small, rural businesses

Posted by Bridget Callahan on September 5, 2017

The Aspen Inn secured funding with help from Sustainable Northwest. Now they're powering 96% of their business with solar.

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The Aspen Inn proprietors from left to right, Heidi McLean and Shannon.

Bridget Callahan, Energy Program Associate, traveled to Fort Klamath, Oregon to visit with The Aspen Inn owners, Heidi McLean and Shannon Sirola. They installed rooftop solar panels with support from the USDA REAP Grant Program, and are now saving up to $700 on summer monthly utility bills. The Aspen Inn is a popular destination in Fort Klamath, the gateway to Crater Lake National Park. 

Sustainable Northwest is raising awareness of and promoting REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) to help educate rural agricultural producers and small businesses about funding opportunities like these that can help get more clean energy projects off the ground by reducing the cost of development.

This is their story.

How long have you owned the Aspen Inn?

I bought this place in 2003, and Shannon came on board in 2013. Running the Aspen Inn is more of a lifestyle than occupation. There’s a really busy season starting in the spring and ends in the fall. During these months we work 7 days a week, are often up by 6am and we don’t stop until 11pm or later. After the busy season it’s a total standstill with very few people around in the winter.

When did you start thinking about going solar?

The Inn needed a lot of work when I first bought it, so I set aside a little money each year doing what I could to update and renovate the property and buildings. For 10 years, I had dreamt of going solar, but it seemed so far out of reach and I hadn’t actively pursued it.

What would you say is the primary reason you were interested going solar?

Climate and finances. When you can save money and help the environment, why wouldn’t you? It’s a no brainer.

Soaking up the sun in Fort Klamath
Solar showcased on the Inn's drive through awning.

You were able to offset 25% of your project costs due to the USDA REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) grant. Do you remember how you first heard about the program?

In October of 2016, Bill Lehman with the Klamath Watershed Partnership called out of the blue. He had just attended a conference that discussed the REAP program and drove by the Inn on his way home.  He saw the potential and thought it could be a great opportunity for our small business. He explained USDA REAP was a grant and loan program for small, rural businesses, and could cover a portion of the cost for solar panels. He told us to think about it and we would revisit in the spring.

Bill called back in February to tell us he was hosting a nearby workshop and the Watershed Partnership and Wy'East RC&D, a regional expert, would be presenting on the REAP program. We felt like we didn’t have anything to lose by attending, and quickly realized we should go for it. That’s when we first met with Sustainable Northwest staff. They sat down with us at our kitchen table to talk about the REAP program, how to apply and helped us identify other pockets of potential funding to further lower the cost of installation.

You now have solar on your rooftop. What was the process like?

After the workshop, we invited Eco Solar, a local solar installer based in Klamath Falls, to our motel to look at our rooftops. It was a really encouraging visit. We received an estimate and started looking at the bottom line, assessing costs, payback and energy savings. We quickly realized we can do this! We contacted Umpqua Bank to inquire about pursuing a small business loan to minimize upfront costs. We received the loan, and with a lot of help from our installer, submitted the REAP grant application and Energy Trust of Oregon paperwork. We were awarded the REAP grant in the spring of 2017 and before we knew it, the panels were installed on our rooftops.

Klamath County has some of the highest solar resources in the state, averaging 218 days of sunshine each year.
Klamath County has some of the highest solar resources in the state, averaging 218 days of sunshine each year.

So tell me about what it’s been like since you installed solar on your business.

It feels amazing! Our panels generate 96% of our energy consumption. Now that we have solar on our rooftops, we’ve become more mindful and conscious about energy and how it’s used and conserved.

You’re saving around $500 on your energy bills each month in the summer. Where do those savings go?

We’re currently using the savings to pay off our business loan which we will continue paying for approximately 5 years. We’d like to think of ways to use those funds to do other energy efficiency measures, which would result in us saving even more money. We’d love to look at more energy efficient windows down the road.

What advice would you give to someone who was curious about the REAP program?

Be patient and don’t get overwhelmed. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s a fair amount of paperwork, and the application includes some technical language. Fortunately, our installer, Eco Solar, helped us immensely with the technical components of the application. There is always someone available to help.

What other financing support did you receive?

We have a lot of roof space and wanted to go big, so we ended up with a system just over 33kW, which powers roughly 96% of our business. We went with Oregon-manufactured panels, and the total cost was $97,682.  Energy Trust of Oregon provided an $18,000 incentive. The federal tax credit offsets 30% of the system, or $16,472, and the REAP grant covered $24,420.

Our final out of pocket cost was $38,436 and our projected payback is 8 years, meaning after 8 years our system will be paid in full and all the excess energy savings goes back into our pocket.

Would you have pursued solar had it not been for the REAP grant to offset 25% of project costs?

Yes, we would have still pursued solar, although it wouldn’t have happened that quickly, and maybe not as big. And likely, we would still be dreaming.

Would you recommend others to apply for the grant?

Absolutely. In fact, we already have to a neighbor down the street!

Anything else you’d like to add?

We owe a big thank you to Sustainable Northwest, Klamath Watershed Partnership, Energy Trust of Oregon and our installer, Eco Solar. They all supported us along the way, answered our questions, helped with paperwork and ensured we kept the ball rolling!