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Deane Osterman: Utilities’ solar programs deliver benefits

As someone who has spent his entire career working in natural resources management, everything comes down to the relationship between energy and the environment.

 Increasingly, state and federal mandates, and even the market, are requiring integration of renewable resources as part of our overall energy mix. As conservation and control of energy costs become more consumer-driven, utilities are investing in new forms of technology that support renewable integration, which ultimately benefits the environment and consumers. 

Under today’s model, building more traditional generation is costly and, frankly, not sustainable. Going forward, utilities will need to be nimble and adapt as the market changes and the climate demands it.

We live in a region where our river basin has been harnessed for energy, perhaps more than any other river basin in the world. Our great rivers – the Spokane, the Columbia, the Snake and others – have carried the weight of this generation for decades. 

 However, hydropower isn’t the panacea that we once thought it was. It requires expensive infrastructure, and much of our work at the Kalispel Tribe of Indians’ Natural Resources Department centers on enhancing and restoring fish and wildlife habitat, water quality and cultural resources that were impacted by industry and hydropower.

 In my view, with the integration of renewable energy sources, including solar, we can rely less on centralized generation, and energy generation can become more distributed. While we’re not ready yet to be 100 percent reliant on solar, or any other renewable form of energy for that matter, we need to take steps to get there.

Avista’s community solar is an example of one of these steps and is why I’m supportive of their work in rolling out the program. Inland Power and Light Co. has a similar initiative, which I also encourage. Here are three reasons why I’m impressed with community solar.

• The community solar program gives more people more options.

Solar energy is out of reach for most of us. Without state and federal incentives it’s hard to justify financially, at least for the average homeowner, and definitely for renters. Community solar will allow anyone – homeowners, renters, etc. – to use energy created by solar arrays owned by Avista and Inland.

Avista is building the largest solar array allowed by Washington’s incentive program. Inland also built the maximum allowable. This allows the maximum number of interested customers to have access to solar. It’s a great deal for the participants and the right thing for the community.

• It’s timely and uses incentives.

Community solar is driven by a state program offered to regional utilities. Utilities don’t have to participate. But the smart ones are taking advantage of it to allow more of their customers to benefit from the state incentives.

Avista and Inland should be applauded for using incentives while also investing in something that benefits people and creates a stronger environmental future.

• We’ll learn from its success.

People and organizations don’t create change by talking. Rather, we learn by doing, then refining programs or projects based on results. When I look at the community solar program, I see a smart initiative that will help people. It might also be something that can be expanded if successful, or we’ll learn from if it’s not.

 As a career environmental advocate for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians  and a lifelong member of this community, I strongly support our local utilities’ work on expanding renewable energy. All of us here will benefit from community solar.

These types of programs deserve support. They’re an important part of our shared energy future. It will help the clean tech sector grow, will lead to more innovation, and is an important part of our shared future – one that’s sustainable economically, socially and environmentally.

Deane Osterman is the executive director of the Kalispel Natural Resources Department.

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