Technology, tax incentives and a desire to combat climate change are making solar power more popular in the Northwest despite relatively inexpensive hydro power.
The stereotypical Puget Sound overcast leads many to believe that solar arrays simply won’t produce meaningful power locally, but the reality is more complex. Sunlight can still provide energy through clouds, Washington summers often have weeks of clear skies, and the long days mean that arrays have more working hours in the summer than similar facilities in southern states.
According to KP resident Jim Bellamy, a longtime solar advocate and recently retired head of Peninsula Light Co.’s Energy Efficiency program, solar panels actually operate more effectively at lower temperatures.
“We get more watts on a summer day here than in Arizona or Southern California. It’s a matter of physics, and how the silicon and other things react to high temperature and sunlight,” Bellamy said. “We really get a lot of good output in this area.”
Solar power may be a viable option for the Northwest in terms of raw energy production, but it struggles to keep up with the competition. Washington has some of the lowest electricity costs in the nation thanks to the state’s extensive hydroelectric power network. While solar panels may work as well here as anywhere else in the nation, it’s hard to justify when many residents already have access to cheap, renewable power.
“Boston’s got about the same weather we have, but their energy costs about twice as much, so putting on a solar system in Boston is a better deal in the long term,” Bellamy said. “And they’re displacing coal and oil, while we have the run of the rivers.”
Despite challenges, many citizens in the Key Peninsula and Gig Harbor area have invested in solar, some as a move toward greater sustainability and others as a long-term investment. According to Bellamy, with current technology and pricing, an average household’s 6-kilowatt solar array will pay for itself in about 20 years, with a rough startup cost of between $10,000 and $15,000.
Bellamy also assisted with the creation of a 60-kW system on the grounds of the Harbor History Museum. The array was energized in 2015 and serves as an example of larger solar farms that can be jointly owned by community members.
“People can buy a share, as though some of those panels had gone onto their roof,” Bellamy said. “All of that power is aggregated, the output of the power of course goes into the system, and then folks that have invested in it get the benefit of the energy that’s being produced by way of a billing credit for their own power system.”
A residential array functions in a similar fashion, using a concept known as net metering. Electricity generated by a customer is subtracted from their bill, even if the power goes to other sources. This essentially allows customers to roll their meter backwards during high-production summer months.
KP landmarks also sport a few solar panels. A 5-kW system at the Key Peninsula Civic Center helps to offset the facility’s energy costs, as well as provide a teaching tool for the Peninsula School District. The largest local solar array is a 99-kW system on top of the Food Market in Key Center.
Although several incentives are offered to help homeowners and businesses get off the ground with solar, their future is in doubt. The federal government currently offers a 30 percent tax credit for solar installations on residential and commercial properties, but this rate is being stepped down to 22 percent by 2021.
The state, through Washington State University’s Energy Program, previously earmarked $110 million in tax credits to utilities to support solar incentive payments, but the program reached its cap in June and is currently not accepting new applications. While not a direct incentive, the state senate passed a bill in 2019 providing 100 percent sales tax exemption to solar systems under 100 kW.
“Our 5.8-kW system on the roof and garage of our 2,600 square foot, all-electric home makes about one-third of all the power we consume over the year,” Richard Gelinas of Lakebay said. “In fact, our typical electric bill in winter months is about $200, including heat, while in the late spring, summer and early fall the bills are below $20 or even show a slight credit, all thanks to net billing.”
“We are glad to be Pen Light members, since they support home solar systems quite unlike some utilities in Arizona and Florida that lobby to limit its adoption,” he said. “We are now looking into battery-based storage systems, since their costs are declining.”