Washington Utility Tries
by Becky Kramer
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Solar energy intrigued Landy Comstock, but he wasn't ready to fork out $30,000 to install solar panels on the roof of his home in Valleyford.
Instead, he bought into a community solar project sponsored by his utility, Inland Power and Light Co.
The project, when fully built, will generate enough electricity to power about 3 1/2 homes. It's a small-scale development, designed to help Comstock and other members of the utility co-op get a taste of solar generation.
Comstock spent $3,000 to purchase 10 shares in the project. He and about 150 other participating utility customers will get a small rebate on their electric bills, plus a five-year Washington state tax credit, to offset the upfront investment.
"I'm a green person in a lot of ways," said Comstock, a financial planner. "What I'm hoping to get out of this is a better understanding of how solar works in our area. Does it make sense financially?"
Inland Power's solar community project will cost about $158,000, with participants footing the bill.
More than 1,200 co-op members wanted to buy into the project, so the utility held a lottery in early November to select participants, said John Francisco, Inland Power's chief of energy resources.
"There's a tremendous amount of interest in solar," he said. "This lets people get into it at a smaller investment cost."
Inland Power recently installed 112 solar panels at its headquarters on Hallett Road. A second phase of the community solar installation will take place early next year. The panels are expected to produce electricity for 20 or more years.
Despite Spokane's northerly location, the area receives more sunshine than Germany, which is the world's leader in solar energy, Francisco said. The utility's website will allow customers to track real-time energy production from the solar panels.
Washington has about three dozen community solar installations. In 2003, the city of Ellensburg built one of the nation's first community solar projects adjacent to Interstate 90. Seattle City Light also has several projects, including solar panels at the Seattle Aquarium and on picnic shelters in public parks.
To encourage more community solar developments, the 2009 Legislature doubled the state tax credit for projects, said Glenn Blackmon, a senior energy policy specialist for the Washington Department of Commerce.
For participants in Inland Power's community solar project, that credit is expected to return about $85 per share for each year through 2020. So, someone who invested $300 in the project could get more than $400 worth of tax credits over the five years.
But after 2020, new projects probably won't get such generous credits, Blackmon said. A state task force is recommending smaller tax credits in the future, based on the declining cost of solar panels.
Dan Melchoir and his wife, Pam, bought 10 shares in the project, mainly for altruistic reasons.
The couple has been interested in renewable energy since the 1980s. They built their home west of Cheney to take advantage of passive heating and cooling from sunlight and shade. In recent years, they considered adding solar panels to offset their electric use.
"This was an opportunity to have solar without doing any of the work," said Melchoir, a retired software engineer. "It's sort of a no-lose proposition."
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