On sunny Capitol Hill, local solar has been a tougher than usual sell

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The solar panels at 10th and E John (Image: Capitol Hill Housing)

Planetarily speaking, you know Seattle’s record breaking warm and dry winter is nothing to boast about. It’s hard not to feel guilty posting sun soaked photos on Facebook while your East Coast friends suffer in a climate change-induced frozen tundra. Since we’re probably on track for more of the same, one guilt-free way to benefit from our sunnier winters is to invest in some local solar energy.

Last year, CHS told you about the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict’s plans for a community-backed solar project at a 10th and E John property owned by Capitol Hill Housing. The solar panels are up and running atop the Holiday Apartment building and around 1,200 units went up for sale last year.

The Capitol Hill Housing site is City Light’s fourth community solar project and has been one of the slowest to sell out. According to Suzanne DuRard, who manages the program for City Light, earlier projects captured many of the customers who were most passionate about solar.

Any Seattle City Light ratepayer can buy the solar units, which go for $150 each. The investment translates into about $32 per unit in annual credits on your City Light bill. Officials expect that by 2020, participants in the Capitol Hill project will recoup their investment and then some as savings on energy bills. There are currently about 200 units left for sale.

While you don’t have to live near the 26 kW project, Capitol Hill Housing is targeting nearby residents to get as much neighborhood participation as possible — another reason the project has taken longer to sell out. While the credits are transferable anywhere inside City Light’s service area, A five year investment in local energy has been a tough sell to Capitol Hill’s younger residents, DuRard said.

“We’ve just had less traction,” DuRard said. “When people find out about it, the response is overwhelmingly positive.”

It’s also tough to sell solar in a city that relies so heavily on hydroelectric power. But as Capitol Hill Housing’s Joel Sisolak pointed out last year, 10% of the city’s electricity is generated from non-hydro sources that include nuclear and a small percentage of coal — sources that could be offset by solar.

In addition to benefitting from unseasonably sunny weather, there’s another reason to jump on the project soon: the state’s Renewable Energy Cost Recovery Incentive Payment Program is set to expire in 2020. Customers buying in after this year will likely have to wait much longer than the current five years to see a return on investment.

Solar advocates are also working to oppose HB 2045 in the state legislature. The bill would stop offering a “net metering” tax incentive for energy that gets pumped back into the grid once such sources reach a certain threshold for utilities.

City Light customers can sign up for the project here and watch a live solar monitor here.

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14 thoughts on “On sunny Capitol Hill, local solar has been a tougher than usual sell

  1. “A five year investment in local energy has been a tough sell to Capitol Hill’s younger residents, DuRard said.”

    I think it’s a harder sell for *renters* in general. If you’re not sure you’ll still be on Capitol Hill in 2020, the investment seems less tempting, unless the credits are transferable to anywhere served by SCL.

  2. DB McWeeberton, the article does say the credits are transferable anywhere served by SCL, and that is the case. So if you move within Seattle (or Shoreline or the various other places served by the utility), you can take it with you. If you move away from Seattle, you can transfer the unit(s) to a friend or family member or donate them to your favorite Seattle non-profit.

  3. Who is paying for the subsidy ? Yup – the customers. So if you are wealthy and can afford panels etc you are then forcing everyone else to pay more to provide your ROI.

  4. You said it! This is the biggest scam ever! Solar in Seattle? Give me a break. Electricity is expensive enough, even with the taxpayers subsidizing City Light, and now they are raising the rates by 30% for the next five years to support yuppy projects like this. Just another sign that they don’t care about poor people in this town.

    • Oh wow! You usually have to go to the south to get that much misinformation……

      1) Electricity in Seattle is dirt cheap to begin with, and “poor people” can get a 60% discount off those rates.

      2) City Light is not subsidized. It’s required, by City of Seattle charter, to be self-supporting. Additionally, it funds many city programs.

      3) Rates are not going up “30% per year”. There is a strategic plan that includes a series of rate increases, but it’s more along the lines of 4-5% per year. To put that in perspective, what’s 5% of six cents?

      4) The solar incentives, as pointed out below, are from the state, and every utility in the state has the same incentive program.

      So calm down, and enjoy Tacoma. Their rates are even lower than Seattle’s

  5. Dear Nope and Tacoma Bound, customers get paid back with Washington State Incentives that are paid from YOUR state tax dollars. We pay those incentives to you on behalf of the State – they come from state funds. One of the main goals of the community solar program is to make sure that people who are paying taxes but who can’t afford solar systems on their own can still take advantages of these incentives that you helped to pay for. Otherwise, those tax dollars are only going to people who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on their own systems (and have to own their own homes to boot). The City Light community solar projects cost $150 per unit, not thousands of dollars, and the State taxpayer paid incentives pay you back. These projects don’t affect the rates you pay for electricity.

    • So yes – I am correct on the wider point that the solar rebate just helps the wealthy get wealthy : ‘Otherwise, those tax dollars are only going to people who can afford to spend thousands of dollars on their own systems (and have to own their own homes to boot).’

      I assume our tax $ can fund any number of things – education perhaps ? If solar worked well in WA it wouldn’t need the funding.

  6. Does the $32 per unit credit continue beyond 2020? If so, this offers a great ROI. If not, you pay $150 for $160 in credits. Also, if you own multiple Seattle properties and purchase multiple units can you apply the credits across multiple electric accounts?

  7. Glenn, to answer your question, unfortunately the incentive will not continue beyond 2020 for this project. City Light’s estimates for solar production are very conservative, so it is likely to generate more than $32/year in credits, and with 6 annual payments for 5.5 years of production (payments start June 2015 and continue through June 2020 for solar generation beginning in November 2014). Using a still conservative example of $33/year x 5.5 years, you would receive $181.50. The ROI doesn’t match the stock market, but it’s significantly better than you’d do in the same period of time with that $150 in a savings account.

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