Ellensburg Residents Invest
by Leah Beth Ward
ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Gary Nystedt was brainstorming with a group of colleagues at a solar energy conference a few years ago when the idea hit him.
What if Ellensburg put up solar panels in a park and invited residents to invest in the system? As a return on their investment in clean energy, residents would get a credit on their electric bill.
Nystedt, resource manager for the city of Ellensburg -- which owns the local electric and gas utilities -- enlisted the support of his boss. The City Council in turn got behind the effort.
With help from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and Washington State University's Northwest Solar Center, Ellensburg launched in 2006 what is believed to be the first "community solar park" in the country, putting the already progressive municipal utility on the leading edge of getting power to the people.
It's an idea that experts say could be replicated in communities across the country. In the meantime, hoping to encourage the trend in Washington state, lawmakers increased the amount of the credit available to individuals who invest in renewable community projects. The rules implementing the credit could take effect early next year, according to the state Department of Revenue.
Nobody's getting rich off the Ellensburg project. Instead, it's driven by the community's commitment to explore the potential of renewable energy.
"A lot of people in this community really believe in getting away from fossil fuels," said George Bottcher, a City Council member and investor.
Indeed, Nystedt's back-of-the-napkin idea three years ago was prompted by residents who were peppering Ellensburg utility officials with questions about installing solar panels on their homes and tying into the grid, which can be a tricky proposition.
Being responsive to customers - who also happen to own the utility - is part of the job, said Nystedt.
"People were turning to us, asking questions about solar, and this was one way we could address them."
Ellensburg has a history of thinking ahead when its comes to utilities. The city created its electric utility, known as City Light, in 1892, making it the oldest in the state. And it is the only city in the state where customers also own the gas utility.
Residents, who enjoy some of the lowest electric rates in the state, also don't have their cityscape marred by overhead power lines. The city utility made a decision long ago to minimize visual pollution by burying them. Any power lines that are visible in the area belong to the Kittitas County Public Utility District.
The community solar park continues that forward-thinking tradition and has evolved into a project that now draws frequent visitors and inquiries from around the country, not to mention South Korea, West Africa and Australia.
And the project just got sweeter. The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced a $600,000 grant that includes the city's renewable-energy park in a regional effort called the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project.
Ellensburg, along with utilities and energy companies from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming, will test and analyze state-of-the art technology to improve power delivery, a concept called "smart grid." Estimated to be a $178 million project, it will be managed by Battelle, which operates Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.
The grant will enable the city to install a different type of solar technology and add several small wind-power systems at the site, which is located in West Ellensburg Park and is visible from Interstate 90. Ellensburg's role in the larger project is to provide data comparing the effectiveness of various renewable technologies on a small scale.
"They are really taking a very innovative approach and will provide a source of data we otherwise wouldn't have," said Ron Melton, manager of the regional demonstration project at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
A community approach overcomes many of the barriers that can discourage individuals who want to harvest the sun, said Bryce Smith, director of the project management group for the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a national nonprofit based in Portland that supports renewable energy and watershed restoration.
Solar can be expensive for individual homeowners, costing as much as $30,000 for a standard residential installation.
"There are many people who like solar, but their roofs are shaded, or they're renting, or they're going to move in two years," said Smith. "With a project like this, you not only give people greater access to solar but you can take advantage of the scale, which brings costs down."
Power distribution is another issue. Most people want power from the city's grid to flow into their homes at night when their own system isn't keeping up with household energy demands.
Managing a number of different connections can be a problem for utility companies, explained Melton. He recalled an incident in Southern California where neighbors joined to install a cluster of solar panels around their cul-de-sac. On a sunny but cool day - when the homes weren't using air conditioning - the panels became extremely hot, causing power to flow into the utility's system in excess of the nearest substation's capacity. The result was a power failure.
But Ellensburg manages its connection between the solar park and its distribution system from a single point of entry, which is safer and more reliable, Melton said.
Currently, 85 residents have invested in the solar park, which officials are now calling the "renewables park" because it will soon have wind as well as solar technology.
With a minimum contribution of $250, local residents and businesses help defray the cost of the solar modules, inverters and the racking systems that hold the panels. Future contributions in any amount can be made over the next five years. One unnamed investor put in $11,000.
Investors see a credit on their electric bill amounting to their share of the investment. If someone contributed 3 percent of the total funds, for example, that individual receives the dollar value of 3 percent of the power produced by the solar project. With Washington's new legislation to encourage solar parks, the credit will go up from about 4 cents a kilowatt hour to 34 cents.
This month, the city is installing the third phase of its solar technology, using the newer "thin-film" panels. The 180 panels are smaller than conventional ones made from thicker crystalline silicon. In phases one and two, the city installed 192 silicon panels that produce 57 kilowatts.
Measuring the trade-offs between the two types of panels will be part of the data collection for the regional demonstration project, with help from Central Washington University.
The next solar technology planned for the park is "concentrating." Large, reflective panels that look like the old giant satellite TV dishes concentrate sunlight onto a receiver that converts it to a usable form. The installations will use what is called a Stirling engine to generate electricity.
Plans also call for at least four different types of small-scale wind projects that are sized for distributed power, that is, the consumption of energy close to where it's generated.
Ellensburg has a long way to go before it can rely on renewable energy. Power from renewable sources is barely a measurable fraction of the city's total load.
But Bob Titus, an electrical engineer and director of Ellensburg's energy services department, said he expects solar technology to blossom over time, much like now ubiquitous cell phones.
"Everything is moving in the direction that these technologies will be cost effective. We just have to start the ball rolling," he said.
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