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CHS Community Post | EcoDistrict solar project is part of an energy (counter) revolution

screenshotWe’ve asked Joel Sisolak, project director for the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict, to contribute to CHS about the district and the environment on a semi-regular basis. If you’re an expert and want to share with the community in a recurring CHS column, we’d like to hear from you. This is his first post for CHS.

Last week, construction wrapped up on the 25-kilowatt community solar project at the Holiday Apartments (10th and E John) and the system went “live” just before Thanksgiving. While many of us enjoyed turkey dinners, electrons from the sun began spinning the Holiday’s electric meter backwards as clean power flowed out onto the grid.

Why should we care about a little solar project? 90% of the electricity we use in Seattle is from hydroelectric dams, including City-owned dams on the Skagit, Pend Orielle and Cedar Rivers.  As energy sources go, hydro is already low carbon and renewable. You might say, “90%, that’s great!  A solid ‘A-minus!’”

But where does the other 10% come from? Some of it is wind power, but about half is nuclear and coal fired energy purchased from Bonneville Power Administration by City Light. Nuclear and coal power bought and sold by the “nation’s greenest utility?!”

We can and should do better. Seattle needs to stop importing BPA’s dirty power and become a net exporter of clean energy to cities more heavily reliant on nuclear, coal and oil.  This can happen, even as our city continues growing, via conservation and investment in solar. With a mix of private and public investment, our whole city could begin to “spin the dial backwards” as we send solar and hydro electrons streaming out of Seattle.

In Capitol Hill, we are helping to lead this (counter)revolution. A 25kW system isn’t much, but it’s a promising start. The Holiday Apartments array is City Light’s 3rd community solar project and its first on Capitol Hill.

Here’s how the project works:  City Light fronts the capital to build the system and then invites ratepayers to “crowd fund” the system by purchasing between $150 and $18,000 in “solar units” via their electric bills. At the ends of each year between now and 2020, each investor will get a credit back on his/her electric bill based on how much energy the system generates. We expect that by 2020, participants in the Capitol Hill project will recoup their investment and then some as savings on their energy bills.

It’s a sweet deal for participants, a relatively painless low cost way to invest in renewable energy.  As an added benefit, the Capitol Hill project supports housing affordability. When the community solar program ends in July 2020, ownership of the array will transfer from the City to Capitol Hill Housing, who will use it to lower the cost of providing 30 affordable apartments to the Holiday’s low income residents.

Operating affordable housing is expensive, so reducing long-term energy costs is eminently practical. And by using solar to benefit low-income residents, we can start to belie claims that green building technologies only benefit an elite class of well-heeled property owners.

Given our druthers, CHH would build every building super-efficient and add solar to every unshaded rooftop. The dream of a “net zero” affordable housing project is in our minds eye, but we face a major hurdle in how our projects are financed. Our apartments are affordable for low income tenants because we don’t charge market rates for rent, which means our buildings don’t generate much revenue.  Because they don’t generate much operating revenue, it is extremely difficult for CHH to leverage capital for adding green energy systems to our properties.

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 4.32.34 PMThe traditional financing mechanisms for building or retrofitting affordable housing projects often frustrate our desires to do deep green projects, which is why the Holiday community solar project is so exciting. As far as I know, it is the first community solar project in the nation to be installed atop an affordable housing property. We hope that it’s the first of many.  In ten years, CHH would love to have solar arrays atop ten more of our buildings and see other Washington developers begin to “spin the dial backwards” on their affordable housing properties.

The feasibility of this vision greatly depends on what happens in the State Legislature this coming session. Currently, a State incentive program funds the credits that community solar participants receive on their electric bills.  Without that incentive program, the math for the Holiday project wouldn’t work.

Unfortunately, the State program is scheduled to end.  This won’t affect the Holiday project, but could greatly limit expansion of community solar to other affordable housing properties. Jay Inslee has asked WSU Energy Program, stakeholders from major utilities, solar installers, and a smattering of conservation groups to help develop new legislation to continue supporting solar projects in the State.  There is a proposal to create new production incentives for community solar projects and a discussion of how to make solar projects atop affordable housing more commonplace.

As the new legislation is drafted, eyes in Olympia are on the project on the Holiday as a potential model and argument for more incentive dollars. The success of our little project could pave the way for more projects like it across the State, and it could be part of moving the City of Seattle towards being a net exporter of clean renewable power, while helping to keep housing affordable in our neighborhood.

The project at the Holiday is live and now needs your support to succeed.  To participate in City Light’s community solar program and invest in the Capitol Hill project, go to the signup site and enroll today.  Businesses that would like to be recognized as “Solar Sponsors” via a special sponsorship program should contact me at

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13 thoughts on “CHS Community Post | EcoDistrict solar project is part of an energy (counter) revolution

  1. Pingback: Hill Wonk | EcoDistrict solar project is part of an energy (counter) revolution - Smart Grid Journal

  2. I have said this before and I will continue saying this, being from Germany, the country with the largest installed rooftop panels: Large-scale photovoltaics in areas with as little sunshine as Seattle is not financially viable. I want whoever is responsible for this lunacy to give me a detailed description of the ecological and energetic footprint of producing the solar panels versus energy saved in a city as gloomy as ours. If we really want solar energy, let us put up the panels in Eastern Washington and have us built power lines from there. Everything else is wasted money to greenwash our minds.

    • These are tiny little experiments… more proof of concept than anything. The aquarium project powers a whole 5 houses/year:

      All projects together might power a residential block. If it’s a boondoggle, it’s a tiny, tiny little boondoggle.

      I think everyone would agree that large scale projects would be more cost effective if built in a sunnier locale. That would require several magnitudes of more investment than the one being made here.

  3. Worse still is that the subsidy for solar comes from charging more for electricity. Only those who can afford to install panels benefit, while everyone else pays more and more for power.

  4. Pingback: Hill Wonk | EcoDistrict solar project is part of an energy (counter) revolution - Smart Grid Journal

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  7. I don’t understand the arguments against building rooftop solar. If it wasn’t financially viable why would Seattle City Light (the utility) be building it? Why would I put it on my own house? Just because one system doesn’t offset 100% of a building’s usage should we not build it? Is reducing the electrical bill of affordable housing a bad thing? We have the cheapest electricity rates in the nation, our low rates are the biggest barrier to widespread solar adoption, not our clouds.

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