In an attempt to spur the spread of solar power, the Oregon Department of Transportation on Thursday unveiled the nation’s first solar panel project on a major U.S. highway.

At the interchange of Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 near Tualatin, a row of solar panels about five feet wide and two football fields long will start generating electricity by the end of the year.

The panels will feed electricity directly to PGE’s systemwide grid and account for 28 percent of the energy needed to power lights that illuminate the highway’s sweeping interchange at night.

Oregon’s deal with Portland General Electric will give the utility its first ownership stake in a solar project and generate business for two new Oregon solar manufacturers. SolarWorld, a German company with operations in Hillsboro will supply solar panels; and PV Powered, of Bend, will provide an inverter, an essential device.

“These are the kinds of economic opportunities that we are creating for all of Oregon as a result of our commitment to an energy independent Oregon,” Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a news conference at the site Thursday.

Ordinarily, such green power would come with a cost premium. But ODOT will pay standard commercial energy rates, by using state and federal tax credits.

The project will generate less than 1 percent of the transportation department’s annual energy use. But it represents a critical first step in what the department envisions as widespread usage of solar energy.

Early next year, the department will seek proposals for similar highway projects generating 2 million kilowatt hours annually – an amount that could feed 182 homes, or about 4.5 percent of ODOT’s annual energy use. Officials also will seek proposals showing new technologies – perhaps solar panels that double as sound walls reducing highway noise near residential neighborhoods. They’re also interested in possibly attaching panels to buildings and sound-deadening walls.

“Now you’re starting to get some good numbers that may attract people who are willing to invest in the next big thing,” said Lynn Frank, a consultant with Five Stars International Ltd. of Salem who helped with the I-5/I-205 project.

Some hurdles remain, however. Public Utility Commission rules prohibit solar panel owners from selling more power to the grid than they consume on-site in a year…

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