Solar Nerd: Community Solar Can Help In Many Ways

by Eric Thomas

No public school or library budget?

Public service retirements in danger?

Community Solar to the Rescue

We already know that solar power can save the world, but in staying with the here (West Seattle) and now (a recession), solar power can help save some of our most treasured community institutions; our schools and libraries. In the following paragraphs I will outline a proposal for these institutions to get FREE solar power systems, lower electric bills, and run on good green power (not to mention the awesome intangible benefits such as a solar curriculum for schools). The community members that support such a project will likely see a nice payback for their efforts. For the motivated community, this could be a huge opportunity. Of course and as always, there are no guarantees that one will recoup their contributions to such a project. I have put together a dynamic spreadsheet (snapshot below) that can help people understand Community Solar systems of various sizes and levels of participation. Just drop a line if you would like to chat sometime!

Ok, let us begin with a community solar overview. The WA State Legislature defines “community solar” as a solar energy system capable of generating up to 75kW of power and located on local government property. City and county owned property, both raw land and facilities, are the only eligible properties. No state, federal, utility, tribal or privately owned lands will work. There are many forms of ownership for community solar projects. Utilities, non-profits, individuals, households, cooperatives, LLCs, corporations and mutual corporations (local governments) can all be owners and applicants in a community solar project. Here is what a 75kW Made in WA system would look like.

In order to keep out the motive of profiteering, the form of ownership for a community solar project that I am proposing here is the cooperative as defined by 23.86 RCW. Cooperatives have been used successfully in many ways to provide for the greater good in a democratic grassroots manner (just look at our very own PCC!).

Sustainability groups, churches, business districts, active PTA groups, “Friends of the Library”, etc are all great catalysts for a community solar coop. A group with cooperative experience is a must. Undertaking a project like this needs strong leadership and involvement.

Here is an outline of how the process works:

After forming the coop, members then begin to choose their contribution levels, budgets, target institutions, and begin developing a project plan. Once a general target has been identified, a local school or library system, a solar expert is used to determine the particular buildings that are best suited for solar. After some himmin’ and hawin’ amongst members, and a good ol’ fashioned site evaluation, the perfect site is chosen for installation. There are many factors involved in choosing a site. An important caveat to remember is that you MUST have a champion on the inside; a principle, science teacher, board member, legislator, Union, PTA, someone or some group to lobby for the project to the site stakeholders, from the inside.

Now let us look a little deeper at an example project. In this example we will be using Made in Washington solar panels and inverters. The WA Dept. of Revenue’s community solar rules state that a community solar installation using Made in WA equipment qualifies each member of the coop to be paid $1.08/kWh for their percentage of interest in the project (until the year 2020!). WOW! That’s bananas! Do you realize that electricity costs an average of about $0.08/kWh, and you’ll be paid $1.08! See the image below for an overview of community solar financial factors.

Ok, Ok, but what does a project like this really look like? How much time and energy is needed to start the coop and administer it? How big does the site have to be? What are the risks? The payback? System maintenance? There are a million questions to be answered. There is a reason that only a handful of these projects have been completed. But West Seattle is home to some of the brightest and boldest that Seattle has to offer (at 20% of Seattle’s population we have to be). If anyone could collaborate to make this happen, we could.

Again, feel free to drop a line. Solar Epiphany is happy to put together an informal idea session at our space sometime in the New Year.

Until next time…

PS:  Want to really shake things up? Imagine the Union of a local government warehouse (wink, wink, Port of Seattle;) investing in a community solar system for their building. Not only would the taxpayers be benefiting from lower overhead, but the Union members could enjoy a decent return on investment (better than the stock market)…and maintain the equipment themselves (learning new skills!). Holy Moly.

Eric Thomas is the proprietor of Solar Epiphany, a West Seattle business specializing in Solar Education, Installation and Advocacy. Find Solar Epiphany online at and at 6016 B California Ave SW, in the Morgan Junction area.