A cowboy grasping the reins of a bucking bronco has long been the image of this farm and ranch town. It’s the emblem of the annual Pendleton Roundup, a celebration of the city’s colorful past, when pioneers on the Oregon Trail settled the prairie.

Today, solar panels might just outnumber cowboys.

Rural Pendleton is blazing an unlikely renewable energy trail, offering no-interest loans to spark interest in solar power and a group-buy philosophy to get better prices. More than 50 residents installed systems last year, and the program was expanded to more residents and to include businesses this year.

Oregon earned a reputation for being a green leader years ago, with adoption of the first bottle bill in 1971 to encourage recycling and efforts to keep its beaches public.

However, many green efforts stem from the state’s populated—and more liberal—west side. They’re less likely to be found in Oregon’s ruggedly conservative agricultural country.

“We’re a Western community, and we’re proud of that, but we’re also in the 21st Century,” city manager Larry Lehman said. “There are people here who are interested in renewable energy, and we wanted to make it easy for them.”

The cost of solar systems—even small ones—run in the thousands of dollars, and having the cash up front is a substantial impediment.

Metropolitan Portland also has pursued solar power in recent years, but other states and

communities had long since taken the lead. Some have issued bonds, then used the money to issue clean energy loans that are tied to property taxes. In San Jose, Calif., city employees bought in to solar projects through their credit union,

Meanwhile, Pendleton had two pots of money sitting in sewer-related reserve accounts.

Why not put that money to better use, Lehman said.

“Way out here, if you want to have solar power, who do you call?” he asked.

Sprawling wheat fields and cattle ranches surround Pendleton, a not-so-sleepy city of 16,500 that sits more than 200 miles east of Portland. Cafes and shops line the bustling downtown streets, and a steady stream of customers shuffled in and out of Hamley’s World Famous Cowboy Outfitters, a well-known apparel and saddle-making shop established in 1883.

Industry has grown in recent years, but state and local government, agriculture and tourism remain the biggest economic drivers.

source: mercurynews