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A Bellingham-based company is building a large solar project on this non-traditional site

UPDATED: Tue., May 3, 2022

By Ysabelle Kempe Bellingham Herald

Bellingham-based company Western Solar continues to expand its reach beyond Whatcom County and is currently completing what will be Vashon Island’s largest solar project.

The grant-funded, 404-panel project is unique because it is located on open space surrounding the island’s landfill, rather than on existing rooftops. This is land that would otherwise be unbuildable but will now be used to generate renewable energy to power the Vashon Recycling and Transfer Station.

“It’s a great way to save the county money and take advantage of this land that can’t be used any other way,” said Joshua Miller, founder of Western Solar.

Solar power is a form of renewable energy, which scientists say we need to replace fossil fuels with to combat human-caused climate change. Fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, produce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions when burned.

The roughly 149-kilowatt Vashon project is one of several larger solar arrays that Western Solar has built for King County, as it strives to power its facilities with clean electricity.

The same strategy of building large solar arrays on public facilities can and is being used in Whatcom, Miller said. All that’s needed is open space.

“Anywhere there is a decent amount of real estate where panels could go,” Miller said.

Western Solar recently installed solar arrays on the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center and adjacent Foothills Food Bank in Maple Falls. The work was funded by $179,324 in state grants awarded to the nonprofit Opportunity Council.

The Foothill Food Bank’s annual energy costs are expected to be reduced by the roughly 100-kilowatt system. The money saved will be diverted toward purchasing food and supplies for the community, according to the February 2021 grant announcement.

Western Solar is collaborating with local leaders to determine where else solar could be co-located with public services.

“We have been consulting with the city of Bellingham and looking at several large Port buildings,” Miller said. “There are several Port facilities with large metal roofs down by the water that could be perfect for solar.”

Miller hopes that the Vashon landfill project proves to Washington communities and leaders that these arrays can significantly offset energy costs for local governments. If the project proves useful, Miller hopes it prompts the state to provide more financial support for even larger solar arrays in the future.

“There aren’t currently funding sources available for cities and counties to go forward with large multi-megawatt systems you might see in Southern California or Arizona,” Miller said. “There will hopefully be more appetite by taxpayers and legislators to fund utility-scale projects to meet climate goals from the governor and state legislature.”

Utility-scale solar projects are very large projects that feed power into the electric grid. Miller said that Western Solar is eyeing Eastern Washington as a place to potentially develop utility-scale solar, since it is sunnier and can produce more energy.

“Farmers could lease out unused farmland,” Miller said.

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