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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pilot program brings free solar power to Yakima Valley farmworker families

By Jasper Kenzo Sundeen Yakima Herald-Republic

TOPPENISH — A state pilot program has helped more than 30 farmworker families install solar panels for free at their homes in the Yakima Valley.

The Northwest Communities Education Center helped distribute almost $1 million in funding from the state Department of Commerce to low-income farmworker households as part of a solar energy project. On Tuesday, state officials and education center staff visited a few of those homes in Toppenish.

“If we can make an impact on one utility bill, it will really help the families,” said Elizabeth Torres, the center’s operations director. “It’s something that’s really impactful.”

Toppenish resident Elisa Garcia, who has two children at home, said she was excited when she heard about the program. Installation has been easy and quick, she said, and now 18 solar panels will generate 100% of her household’s energy needs.

“Esta bien y rapido,” Garcia said in Spanish, the program is good and fast.

During the summer, Garcia said, her monthly energy bills are north of $120. The savings she’ll get are important, she said.

“With this money, I can buy other things my kids need,” she said.

Garcia added that she would recommend the program to her neighbors, noting the benefits that renewable energy has for the environment. She thanked visiting officials for the help.

The pilot program targeted current or former low-income farmworkers who owned their own homes, said Salvador Delgadillo, an outreach specialist for the effort.

“Most of these families have three to four, even five people,” Delgadillo said. “We have families from Harrah to Grandview.”

Delgadillo has helped guide 32 families through the process of getting solar power. Some will generate so much electricity that they can sell some back into the power grid.

The program is part of the Commerce Department’s investments into renewable energy and quality of life throughout the state, said Director Mike Fong. Equity is a critical part of those efforts, Fong added. There’s a focus on spreading economic, environmental and quality of life improvements to rural areas, communities of color and low-income residents.

That’s part of why the program targeted lower-income farmworkers, he said.

“Farmworkers have made such an incredible contribution to the state economy,” Fong said. “Many current and retired farmworkers face challenges in affordability.”

Northwest Communities Education Center announced the program through Radio KDNA — the Granger-based, Spanish-language radio station that is affiliated with NEDC under Sea-Mar Community Health Centers.

Torres said it was the first time the center has engaged in direct service programs and there was a lot of interest. The permitting and application process took some time, she said. Some of the homes needed minor improvements before solar panels could be installed.

The installation itself was relatively quick. Garcia said her solar panels were installed in a single day.

“All the programs were free of cost to the families,” Torres said.

Torres said the effort will continue if more funding is available. Fong said the Commerce Department hopes to continue the efforts.

“We want to explore how we can expand programs like this one,” he said. “We want to make sure, as we move through this energy transition, that we reach underserved communities.”

The Commerce Department’s focus on renewable energy like solar power is shared throughout the state government. He sees renewable energy and its adoption as a key part of the state’s economy.

The changes will generate jobs as new infrastructure and technology are adopted and improve quality of life, help the environment and save people money.

“Economic opportunity and prosperity is about more than just a business endeavor,” Fong said. “We, as Washington state, invest in our most important resource: our people.”