ELLENSBURG – Gray, gloomy rain. As much as Mount Rainier and salmon, drizzle is the staple image of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle even broke a record last fall for precipitation in one month.
But east of the Cascade Range, where sagebrush blooms in a desert climate, power companies see potential in sunshine. Washington’s oldest utility plans to start building the largest solar project in the region next month, and a municipal utility in a small city known best for its rodeo is enlisting residents’ help to expand its solar energy generation. “It’s not as good a deal in a state that gets less sun as it is in a state that sees more sunlight,” said Stephen Frantz, a program planner for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. “To compensate for that, you just have a strong environmental ethic in the Pacific Northwest.”
Solar comprises less than 1 percent of the power supply nationwide. Much of the solar investment in the country has been made by people who live off the power grid, or by electricity customers whose utilities can install meters that give credit for green power generated at residences or businesses.
But a number of factors are pushing utilities to look more closely at solar power, among them the rising cost of fossil fuels, environmental standards and state mandates for increasing renewable energy generation. At least 20 states, including Washington, have passed laws requiring utilities to boost their clean power sources.
The secret about solar energy is that it’s been increasing at well over 30 percent a year for about the past 10 years, said Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society, a nonprofit group that promotes renewable energy. The increase has been fueled largely by government incentives similar to those established in Germany in 2000, Collins said.
Germany now generates a third of the world’s wind power, and 50 percent of solar modules produced worldwide are installed there. Japan also provides significant incentives for solar power, pushing the United States to third in an area where 10 years ago it led the field.
“We are really in a global race to see who can develop and deploy these technologies the fastest,” said Noah Kaye, director of public affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association. “Renewable energy is going to drive a jobs boom and economic growth in the U.S., and states that set the policies designed to attract that growth are going to end up reaping the most benefits.”
Projects in the Northwest, long reliant on cheap hydropower, would seem to bear that out.
Puget Sound Energy plans to start construction next month on a $3.7 million solar project next to its wind farm overlooking the Columbia River, about 115 miles east of Seattle. The 500-kilowatt project, enough to power about 300 houses, would easily be the biggest in the region.
It’s a small, symbolic step toward an important goal, said Steve Emmert, PSE financial analyst.
“People are very concerned about renewable energy and clean energy, and we really feel like this is something we need to be a leader on,” Emmert said.
The utility also is taking advantage of a $300,000 federal tax credit for investing in a project valued at more than $1 million, before the credit expires at the end of the year, he said.
Just west on Interstate 90, the municipal utility in Ellensburg doesn’t qualify for such credits but is pushing ahead with its own solar adventure.
Under its project, residents can invest a minimum of $250 toward the purchase of solar modules. The resulting power goes directly onto the utility’s power lines, but residents receive a credit on their bills.
The utility, which has about 8,000 customers, maintains and operates the system. That allows residents who live in a shady area or who can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on rooftop modules to tap into green power.
The project is widely believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
“It’s a fluke, I guess. We just came up with a new idea,” said Gary Nystedt, the city’s resource manager. “But people are excited about it, and participating.”
So far, about 65 people have invested in the project that now stands at 36 kilowatts, enough power for 10 houses a year. The city expects to expand the system to 165 kilowatts.
As more people invest, the city will buy more modules, Nystedt said. He estimates it will take investors 15 years to recoup their money at today’s prices.
Solar modules generally have a lifespan of about 25 years.
“Our contributors are investing in the future,” he said, “where we are going to get our power in 10, 20 years.”
Customers who buy in also own their investment and could include it as part of the sale of their home or transfer it to another entity, such as a church.
Helen Wise, a retired biology professor, invested $4,500.
“Even if I didn’t have that incentive, it’s important to me,” Wise said. “I think I bought probably the first hybrid car in town, and my other car was still good.”
Communities in Washington, Oregon and California have called Nystedt for information about the project. They include Frantz, the Sacramento planner whose city opted to pursue a system that isn’t customer-owned.
“They’re doing it for love, not for the money,” he said of Ellensburg. “And you can’t base a national energy scale on love and not money.”
The cost for solar power is typically about 25 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with about 4.5 cents for natural gas and hydropower, according to Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, part of Washington State University’s energy program.
However, there isn’t any additional hydropower available to purchase and no utility can sign a 30-year contract for natural gas, he said. If anything, the Northwest has been slow to realize its solar potential.
Puget Sound Energy’s project is one-tenth the size of the largest system in the nation in Arizona, and Washington state residents have installed twice as much solar power in the past year alone.
“What (Puget Sound Energy) is doing is a nice big leap,” Nelson said. “But the fact is, the public has already leapt twice as far.”