Q+A: Zach Snyder, program manager at Solar Oregon

“Leading the way to a clean energy future where human prosperity is achieved through efficient technology and renewable energy.” That’s the mission of Portland-based nonprofit, Solar Oregon.

We recently spoke with Zach Snyder, the program manager at the 40-year-old organization, to learn how Solar Oregon is helping homeowners reduce their energy footprint.

Q: Can you share a bit about what Solar Oregon does?

A: We are an education, advocacy-oriented nonprofit that works to increase the opportunities for adoption of solar energy and related consumer energy — clean energy technologies — across the state. So that includes things like energy storage, also called “batteries” (you might see things like Tesla Powerwall), but also electric vehicle chargers and energy efficiency. And we talk about how all these things work together and tell people about the technology, the incentives with our tours, we host educational workshops, and other educational events.

Q: How is Solar Oregon reaching residents?

A: Our main program is our How To Go Solar + Storage and we usually have one of those a month. Sometimes we have them in person, but certainly, since 2020, we’ve had a lot of them virtually. So they’re really easy to join. They’re for home and business owners thinking about their own rooftop system, and for anybody who just wants information about the technology and the incentives available right now. And I love to talk to people and answer questions.

Q: What can someone expect when they go on an in-person or virtual Solar Oregon tour of local homes?

A: So it’s all about energy, and energy is one of those things that you can think about for a very long time and always learn things, and that’s one of the reasons I love it. But you know, the way our built environment is constructed, often we just kind of show up in our homes and businesses and don’t really think about it.

But there are lots of things you can do whether you own an old home or even if you rent to increase your energy efficiency. And also, if you’re a designer, if you’re an architecture student, or if you’re just interested in clean energy, it’s a great way to learn how these technologies actually work on the ground, where things are right now, and how you can get involved in a number of different ways.

So if you go on a tour, like the Go Zero Tour, it’s really about going and talking to people; the biggest thing is hearing their experiences. Why did people decide to do this? What got them interested? What were the barriers? That’s a big thing. What have they learned since doing that? And what were the benefits for them? So it’s very personable and interaction related, but also it’s just nice to see new things.

Q: Where do tours take place?
A: They’re statewide; so we have an annual zero energy homes tour called the Go Zero Tour. Usually tours are localized in a certain place. During the pandemic, we started doing it statewide, because we could since we decided to go virtual that year. And now we’re doing a hybrid format, but we realized it’s great to have kind of a distributed tour. So we had sites in the Ashland and Bend areas, and also in the Portland area. It kind of works through whoever is hosting their site to draw people that they know in there, and just get people to talk about what’s going on.

Q: Are there other options aside from installing solar panels on your roof?

A: There are really great resources besides actually putting solar panels on your roof, because that’s something where there can be up-front costs, though there are great incentives. There’s something called Community Solar — and that’s something where you can even be a renter, you don’t have to own your roof. Instead of paying your utility company for the electricity that they generate in the standard kind of way with power plants, you can subscribe to a community solar installation, which could be installed on a community center somewhere in the state, or maybe it’s a solar farm. But you have that kind of direct connection and it’s managed by the utility company.

A lot of people aren’t aware that that’s an option, and actually, you can save money by doing that. I also love to have sites on the tour that are older homes, we’ve had homes as old as an 1890 home that went net zero, which is a bigger challenge, as you might imagine.

There are all sorts of creative strategies that have come out on the tour. You see people talking about insulation and how they chose what kind of insulation, when to get that done, when to replace appliances with more efficient appliances. And, you know, ways in which you can wrap it up into refinancing your mortgage if you’re already kind of doing that. So there’s a ton of strategies, and it’s about picking up those tips from people who’ve done it.

Q: Would you say it’s a bit of a misconception that people need to spend a lot of money to go more solar?

A: There are a lot of opportunities — you know, there are barriers and what we’re focused on is making sure that we’re advocating for new strategies to get around those barriers, and also letting people know about the strategies that exist. So [the tour] is one example of how to do that.

A group of people stand in front of a house with solar panels on its roof.

You can see past Go Zero Tours online. | Photo via Zach Snyder

Q: Why do you believe solar energy is important right now?
A: So there’s a lot going on in the world of the electrical grid and, obviously, solar; I think a lot of people understand that it’s clean energy, it’s renewable energy, and that it has an environmental benefit. That’s key and that’s central.

There are also a lot of other reasons: one is that solar allows you to save on energy costs and a solar system is something that you pay for upfront, there are incentives, and there’s financing available to help you do that. And once that is paid off, it is essentially free electricity for you. So it’s a way to build wealth for your family or for your community.

Additionally, there’s an increased focus on energy resiliency, which is just the idea that when the power goes out, whether that’s from a storm, or maybe there’s a section of the grid that the utility company turns off because they don’t want to start a fire when it’s really hot and windy, which has started happening during our 2020 fire season and it’s kind of expected that that’ll happen a little bit more.

Solar by itself — there’s a misconception that that will allow you to use electricity when the grid is down; that’s actually not true. But when you add a battery onto a solar system, the solar system then can recharge the battery and that greatly increases the utility of the battery. That is a key strategy that a lot of folks are thinking about: How do we get community centers set up so that during a disaster like the Cascadia earthquake, we have folks who have electricity where people can go to plug in cell phones, charge computers, use communication devices, that kind of thing. And of course, it’s for folks who are able to do that for their home. That’s just an added benefit that they can take advantage of.

Q: What kind of trend have you seen regarding interest in solar energy in recent years?

A: So even from when I started in solar — me personally, four years ago — there’s been quite a bit of growth. About 12 years ago, we had a solar industry, and we had some solar being installed, but there really is no comparison between then and now. And that’s true all across the country but definitely in Oregon. Right now, there’s a very keen interest in not just solar, but energy storage batteries.

Q: How can someone get involved in helping Solar Oregon?

A: Yeah, I love to have volunteers at events and also, we welcome folks who want to get involved in our tour committees. So if you want to get involved with helping to plan and just kind of check out how things work behind the scenes, folks are always welcome. They can get in touch.

Q: Do you have any resources to share with people in Southwest Washington?

A: We serve folks in Oregon, and Washington is a different landscape because there are different state-based incentives and that’s not something that we educate on. However, Energy Trust of Oregon does serve parts of Southwest Washington. And I know there are great resources in Southwest Washington — and actually, there are solar installers who work both in Oregon and Washington and go back and forth all the time.

You can check out previous Go Zero Tours from 2020 + 2021 virtually. This year’s tour will take place in October; registration will open next week with in-person tickets available for approx. $25 and virtual tickets for about $6. You can take the virtual tour for free after mid-October.

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