Solar energy becomes a community affair

By Amy Smith

If you are mulling over the idea of installing solar panels on your home or small business and you’re in the 98105, 98115 or 98125 ZIP codes, you’re in luck.

Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (Northwest SEED) just launched its third installment of the Solarize Seattle program (Solarize NE) in your neighborhood.

Registration for the program started Jan. 17 and runs through April 23. Within the first 24-hour period, 80 people registered for the program, a single-day record for the organization, wrote Alexandra Sawyer, Northwest SEED-Solarize Seattle project coordinator, in an e-mail. “It looks like this is going to be a big one!”

Lower group costs

The Solarize Seattle is a program run by Northwest SEED and Seattle-area, citizen-led community groups. The program helps communities organize and figure out the best way for neighborhood residents to go solar.

The group approach also lowers the cost of materials and installation. So the more participants, the lower the start-up costs.

Once neighborhood residents register and have free assessments of their homes done, Northwest SEED helps the neighborhood group write a proposal and find suppliers and installers to present it to.

“The community can put in their own preferences in the proposal,” Sawyer said, such as conditions to use locally produced materials or to only work with local businesses that pay their workers a living wage. “They can really take ownership over the document.”

Not only does going at the project as a group lessen the intimidation factor, it also lowers the costs.

The cost of solar electric systems can vary, depending on a number of factors. For conventional systems mounted on a sloped roof, though, cost is fairly proportional to size. The typical 3,000-watt or 3-kilowatt system would cost $15,000 to $24,000 installed, states the Seattle City Light website.

Purchasing as a group usually amounts to a 15 to 25 percent discount off the costs of materials and installation, Sawyer said. Additionally, sales tax is waived on solar-power systems that are less than 10 kilowatts in size.

A further monetary savings comes in the form of a federal tax credit of 30 percent on the cost of putting solar in, Sawyer said.

Combined with a production incentive and net metering, “most participants should see 50 to 60 percent off after year one,” Sawyer wrote. “After that, the production incentive and net metering will continue to pay the system back.”

Net metering works this way: If your home produces more power than it uses, Sawyer said, then that extra power goes back into the energy grid, and the homeowners receive a credit on their power bill.

Participating in the Solarize Seattle program also has other advantages, wrote program volunteer Rebecca Dunsmoor-Su in an e-mail.

“Through this program, all of the paperwork for rebates, incentives and getting hooked up to the local grid is done as part of the process. Since all the legwork is done, the process is quick, from inquiry to install,” Dunsmoor-Su said.

Neighborhood by neighborhood

The ‘Solarize’ model was first developed in Portland, Ore., in 2009.

According the Solarize Portland website, the first iteration of the Solarize Portland project was in June 2009.

Originally crafted by representatives of two Portland neighborhood groups, the grassroots, community-driven idea quickly caught on. Within six months, 130 new residential photovoltaic (PV) systems were installed. The movement quickly spread to many other neighborhoods.

Since introduction of the program, Portland has quadrupled its solar power use by 400 percent.

Solarize Seattle was launched in June 2011 in the Queen Anne neighborhood. In total, 30 Queen Anne homes had solar-power systems put in through the Solarize Queen Anne project.

The Magnolia neighborhood quickly followed on the heels of Queen Anne. Sawyer said Solarize Magnolia has completed 26 homes, with 10 more still in the works.

Queen Anne resident Heather Trim had 18 panels installed on her Seattle historic-landmark-registered home last October.

“I had been intrigued about putting solar power into my home,” she said, but didn’t really know where to start. The Solarize Seattle project got her over the hump.

“It’s so much fun to come home and see the meter ticking along,” Trim said, estimating that the solar panels she had installed will provide at least half of her electrical needs for a year.

Learning more

When Northwest SEED initially put the call out to neighborhoods with the Solarize Seattle concept, they were met with a tide of enthusiasm from many community groups. So much so, they had to devise a method to choose which neighborhoods to service.

“Each neighborhood submits a formal proposal,” explaining why the program should come to their neighborhood, Sawyer said. A round of interviews follow.

Once the neighborhood is chosen, Northwest SEED works with the community group to register and inform interested residents through a series of workshops.

“The workshops are geared to explain the solarize project and [the] process of having your house evaluated,” Dunsmoor-Su wrote. Solar power incentives at the state and federal levels are also discussed.

After “the evaluation is done [and] the contracts are signed, actual installation only takes a few days (more or less depending on your house or site),” she wrote. “There may be a short wait time if there are a lot of sign-ups.”

The goal for the Northeast Seattle site “is to have everyone’s system up and running for the summer sun,” she stated.

Lucy Weinberg, another program volunteer, said, “The size of the solar panels depend on the size of the roof and the amount of good sun exposure.”

Trim said that because Seattle is so gray, many people don’t realize solar power is such a big possibility here.

“Germany is the solar capital of the world, and they’re darker than us,” she said.

The next neighborhood for the Solarize Seattle program has not been chosen, Sawyer said. Sawyer explained that, in gauging the program’s success, they look at more than just the number of houses outfitted with new solar-power systems.

“On top of the number of people that go through the project, there are people that go through other channels,” she said.

Between the Queen Anne and Magnolia projects, about 350 people have attended workshops. That’s significant, even if they don’t sign up for the program, Sawyer said, because that means that at least they are thinking about going solar.

Sawyer points out another bonus of the Solarize Seattle program: It mobilizes neighborhoods around a tangible effort: “It’s a community-building process — it gets people very involved with their community,” she said.

Registration for Solarize Northeast runs through April 23. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 28, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Meadowbrook Community Center, 10750 30th Ave. N.E. Three other workshops are scheduled for February, March and April.

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Appeared in North Seattle Herald-Outlook on January 30, 2012.

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