Solar Nerd: Community-owned Solar Factory, Why Not?

Meaningful Solar Idea o’ the Day

Because Good Ideas Should Be Freed

I am so tired of having these huge ideas floating around my head and no one to share them with….so here we go. I’m opening my book to you, the sustainable community. Let’s see what happens when I turn on the idea faucet! Who’s got a bucket?

Idea 1:
Non-profit, Community Owned Photovoltaic Factory

Don’t you dare scoff! Read on! The gist is this; you can’t compete with China when it comes to manufacturing anything unless…’re not competing. What if you weren’t in business to make money but rather to make a difference?  Enter the Non-Profit Community Owned Solar Factory. By being organized as a nonprofit, grant money and tax benefits can offset the cost of solar to a point where it could be on par with the imported goods. A solar factory in West Seattle wouldn’t need to necessarily produce goods at a comparable price anyway. Washington State subsidizes local solar goods with some really good incentives that allow higher prices to be charged.

Ok, so it’s theoretically possibly produce lower-than-market-cost solar panels, great. A solar factory must cost 10’s of millions of dollars to create. Not so much. I’ve done the research, and have a quote, for all of the equipment necessary to produce 60,000, 200W solar panels a year. Enough for 4,000 average sized systems. How much is this equipment? $1.8 M. OMG, Gee whiz, holy smokes that’s a lot of money. Not really. Consider the community owned aspect of this idea. 1.8M may be a great deal for an individual to come up with, but a community such as ours….not so farfetched. Do some simple math and you can see 1.8M/$5000 = 360 people putting up $5k. I got 5k on it.

So 360 people putting up $5k gets us the equipment, what about the building? Well, it just so happens that WS has an industrial area in need of some serious rehab. The Duwamish Corridor is an EPA Superfund site. Tell me a better place to plant a cleantech seed! A nonprofit could lease a space for low cost instead of buying. You only need 6,000 square feet for the equipment and maybe another $30k for the electrical and plumbing build out. Not too bad so far.

The biggest cost of manufacturing solar modules comes from procuring the solar cells, solder, framing, glass and backsheets. If you were going to go all out and procure the entire 60,000 panels worth of materials you’d be looking at another $20M or so. Granted, that’s an intimidating amount but you don’t have to get a year’s worth of materials all at once, start smaller. Or, add in some Department of Energy grant money, maybe some Bill and Melinda money, oh heck, how about some Costco, Boeing, and Amazon money while we’re at it (after all, they will be customers of this new entity, right?). Pretty soon, our little $22M dollar community solar factory is accomplishable, likely even. We have the human resources right here in town to make this happen. Toss in some local grant writers, Sustainability group volunteers, a couple politicians, a solar expert or two, and viola! Homegrown solar factory.

The nonprofit can then train solar educators and sponsor events where the community learns about the benefits of having solar, how it works, the incentives, etc. They are introduced to the “new cost” of going solar, the one with the nonprofit profit margin.

The nonprofit can also train solar installers to install and maintain the modules that are being produced. You want to talk about job creation!! Educators, trades people, grant writers, nonprofit leaders…all of the jobs that are in jeopardy in the present day will have useful places in this arena.

Bottom line: The only thing in recession is the old way of making money. A nonprofit can provide meaningful work, health care, and living wages for all those involved instead of just a few on top. It just takes us getting together to make it happen. I’m all for this one, that’s why I’m sharing it. If you are interested in chatting it up, just shoot a call or email.

As always, take care.

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.