By Suzanne DuRard
Northwest Asian Weekly
Residential solar energy (also called photovoltaic) systems cost a lot. An average system in Seattle costs $15,000 or more. In exchange for that big investment though, a customer who installs solar will see a significant decrease in their electric bills over time. With the generous incentives for solar energy generation that are available from the State of Washington, a solar customer can pay off their investment in 5-7 years.
Many systems now being installed will generate enough energy to cover the annual electric use of the household, so that the energy is essentially free once the system costs are recouped.
However, many people can’t make that kind of investment in a solar system or have other barriers to “going solar” themselves, such as having a shady lot, living in a condominium, or renting. Seattle City Light has worked to overcome these barriers for its customers by developing a Community Solar program (seattle.gov/communitysolar), where customers can buy a piece of a project built by the utility at an affordable price, save money on their own electric bills, and help share the benefits of solar more broadly. Project locations are chosen based on maximizing exposure to the sun as well as the conservation orientation or mission of the host, in order to maximize payback and community value to participants.
Many states have community solar programs, and they are all a little different. In and around Seattle, any customer of Seattle City Light can buy “solar units” from the utility for $150 each. Each unit represents 28 watts of the community array’s total, or about a tenth of a typical solar panel. City Light’s latest project is on the roof of a low-income apartment building on Capitol Hill. The utility fronted the capital for the panels and installation, but as the project produces electricity, it creates revenue by selling electricity back to the grid, and by paying out Washington State’s very generous incentives for producing solar power. Participants who have bought one or more units earn a share of that revenue, which is taken off their electric bills as a credit. City Light customers that buy solar units will likely make back a little more than their original investment by the time the program ends in 2020, when the state stops giving away $1.08 per kilowatt-hour to community solar projects with Washington-made components.
The project installation for the Capitol Hill project took place in November of 2014 and the system went live shortly thereafter. The system’s electricity benefits the project participants through the end of June, 2020, and after that, it will provide free electricity to affordable housing provider Capitol Hill Housing (CHH), which owns the building where the system is located. Since the life of the system is expected to be at somewhere between 25 and 40 years, this is a significant benefit to CHH, that will help them keep their operating costs down so they can focus on providing the most cost-effective housing and services to their residents.
Spots are still available for those interested in signing up for Community Solar through Seattle City Light. Of the total 925 units in the Capitol Hill project, just under 100 remain.
City Light’s three other community solar projects, at Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill, at the Seattle Aquarium, and at the Woodland Park Zoo and Phinney Neighborhood Association on Phinney Ridge, are full, with over 1000 participating customers.
According to Seattle City Light figures, it is estimated that there are nearly 1,700 customers who have installed solar on their own home or building in the last 15 years. The Community Solar program, in three years and with four projects, has added 1,350 solar customers as community solar participants, and that number is expected to grow by the time the Capitol Hill project is finished. City Light is working hard to get the message out that this program exists as an alternative for customers who want solar but maybe can’t do it themselves.
The utility wants to grow the program with additional projects with the hope that before long, community solar customers will outnumber the net-metered customers by a broad margin. (end)
For more on the solar panel project, visit www.seattle.gov/communitysolar.
Suzanne DuRard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.