On the west bank of the Willamette River, just south of the Hawthorne Bridge, an architectural marvel is rising from the dirt.

It's the new Multnomah County Courthouse, a 17-story, $325 million, state-of-the-art public edifice that will include 44 courtrooms and new offices for the Multnomah County district attorney.

And it has another pricey feature: a state-mandated solar energy system that will take more than a century to pay for itself.

An Oregon Department of Energy report shows Multnomah County will spend $6.6 million on what the state calls green energy technology, or GET, investments at the courthouse. The investments include a $1.47 million rooftop solar system, special insulation and oversized windows.

The estimated annual value of the solar power produced, according to figures the county provided to the state: $13,424.

That means it will take 109 years for taxpayers to recoup their investment in the courthouse's renewable energy features.

"It's ludicrous," says Jerry Milstead, a construction manager who's worked on three projects in which a public agency refused to comply with the state's solar energy requirements.

A centurylong payback time is, of course, a period of time so long it's nearly meaningless.

The extraordinary cost of complying with the state mandate raises at least two important questions: Does the mandate make sense if a project can never recoup its costs? And if not, at what point do environmental features come at too steep a cost to taxpayers?

(Walker Stockly)
(Walker Stockly)

In 2007, in response to soaring energy prices, the Oregon Legislature passed a package of bills to spur the development of renewable energy sources. One of them, House Bill 2620, required public agencies spending more than $1 million on new construction to allocate 1.5 percent of the project's budget to solar energy.

The idea then was that government entities would be guinea pigs that could both subsidize solar projects and demonstrate that they worked.

Indeed, solar projects are increasingly competitive with other sources of electricity: Over the past decade, the cost of producing solar power, federal figures show, is about one-third of what it was in 2007.

Yet in some cases, the financial returns of complying with the state's green energy mandate remain puny. The courthouse is one of those exceptions.

Its payback is so low because the building is located on Portland General Electric's downtown power grid, which cannot accept solar energy from buildings. (The electricity is instead being shunted to power the lights on the nearby Hawthorne Bridge.)

Some public entities have looked at the low returns and refused to go along with the state requirement.

The report the Department of Energy submitted to lawmakers earlier this year shows that in 2017, four school districts—Fern Ridge, Lane, South Lane and McMinnville—elected not to include solar panels in new building projects.

"The [Lane School] District's design engineers have reviewed the project and have calculated that a simple payback would be over 20 years," the ODOE report says. "With this information, the district has decided that an expenditure for this system would not be a prudent use of taxpayers' money."

Superintendent Maryalice Russell of the McMinnville School District says the $47 million renovation of her district's high school is a complicated, multiphase project.

"We really care about energy efficiency and renewable energy," Russell tells WW. "But to use our limited dollars in the way [HB 2620 requires] is not helpful to our long-term plan."

Officials from the Fern Ridge and South Lane school districts expressed similar sentiments to the Department of Energy. The agency pushed back.

"Statute does not allow exemption from compliance with the 1.5 percent for GET requirement based on cost-effectiveness," Ann Hushagen, an energy analyst at ODOE, wrote in response to McMinnville's explanation why it wasn't installing solar panels. Translation: Don't worry about cost—just install the panels.

Milstead, who was involved in the construction projects at McMinnville and Fern Ridge and is now working on a jail project in Crook County, where officials also declined to install solar panels, took issue with that response.

"What better reason for not spending taxpayers' money than one that gives a return longer than the item purchased lasts?" he wrote in a 2017 email to Hushagen.

The same question is applicable to the Multnomah County Courthouse. County officials have chosen not just to comply with the state requirement on this project—but to exceed it. The mandate, at 1.5 percent of contract value, adds up to $3.67 million for the courthouse, but the county is spending $6.6 million.

(Walker Stockly)
(Walker Stockly)

County spokesman Mike Pullen says that total includes $5.1 million for larger windows, insulation and other efficiency measures that will save $60,000 a year in energy costs. That means those features will pay for themselves in 85 years—better than the solar installation but still far worse than the projects the school districts refused to do.

The county told ODOE it hoped to achieve LEED Gold, an environmental building standard. "More importantly," county officials explained, "the structure is designed to enhance the user experience with exposure to Portland's beautiful geography and natural outdoor elements in what can often be considered a stressful indoor community function."

Going to school could also be considered a "stressful indoor community function," but district leaders have waved off the state requirement.

"We just feel we could use the dollars in a better way," says McMinnville's Russell.
Pullen says the county regarded the mandate as inviolable. He says environmental responsibility is a core county value and the green energy investments will add substantially to employee productivity.

"We believe the project's green energy design will be a good value over the life cycle of this building," Pullen says.

So what about the government entities who said the mandate was too expensive?
Energy department spokeswoman Rachel Wray says their only penalty is being written up in her agency's annual report.

She disagrees with critics who say the mandate is obsolete. "This law was originally passed to make solar more visible and encourage new renewable development, and it's still a driver of that today," Wray says. "There's always a place for Oregon governments to show energy leadership."