Oregon city installs 'solar trees' outside city hall

GRESHAM, Ore. - Gresham City Hall is getting a couple of new trees and while they might provide a bit of shade, they aren't necessarily the kind you would expect.

On Wednesday, crews began installing two new 'solar trees' (basically solar panels with an artistic flair) that were specially designed not only for their aesthetic appeal but also for their visibility to the public.

They are part of a larger project, funded by grants that the City of Gresham applied for and got, that includes a solar canopy in the parking lot at City Hall. The city is using $500,000 in federal stimulus grants and $124,000 from a grant from the Energy Trust of Oregon.

So how did the folks working on the project come up with their ideas for a solar tree and solar canopy?

"We determined there were two important things," said Andy Noel, Director of Utility Business Development at REC Solar, one of the companies involved in the project. "One was to create a sizable solar system. So we used some of the space they had in the parking lot to create a roughly 100-foot long solar carport. But in addition to that, there was the desire to do something more unique, more visible."

"We had options to put them (some solar panels) just on the roof where nobody would see them but we wanted something that would bring this effort to the public," said Randy Shannon, a civil engineer with the City of Gresham who has been heading up the project.

The final result - two giant solar trees that will draw attention not only from people walking by, but also folks riding through downtown Gresham on the MAX trains. And if you get up close, there's a pretty cool feature - anyone who stands under the solar trees and looks up will see their reflection in giant mirrors. It makes for a great photo op.

Now we did ask the folks who designed and built the solar trees whether the top of them would move with the sun. The answer was no but engineers will be carefully positioning them.

"We will be, tomorrow or later today, orienting them to face much more southerly," said Craig Merrigan, CEO of Spotlight Solar, the company behind the solar trees. They specialize in creating solar systems that look like sculptures. "So you'll see a fairly large black kind of diamond shape and then they'll be fixed in that position."

So why do something like this?

Well the obvious answer is that the city will be saving some money on its power bill for City Hall. Between the solar trees and the solar carport, they expect to shave about 15 percent off their power bill annually. And in these lean times, every dollar counts.

Of course, there is a bigger picture as well.

"It's a very visible way of showing that the city is committed to sustainability and it's just a great public way of highlighting all the other things we do at the city regarding sustainability - making our HVAC system more efficient, using light bulbs that are more efficient, to what we do in our wastewater treatment plant," said Laura Bridges, spokeswoman for the City of Gresham.