25 islanders pitch in to put solar on Bainbridge City Hall

The following post is by Kathleen O’Brien:

In August, a 71.28 kW Community Solar Project installed on the roof of the Bainbridge Island City Hall went live. My husband and I are two of 25 Bainbridge Islanders participating in the project.

In a recent communication from Joe Deets, project manager and principal of Community Solar Solutions with his wife, Tammy Deets, we learned that despite a few initial inverter failures that have been quickly addressed, the system is actually performing better than average.

Jake Wade of Puget Sound Energy said, “The production at City Hall is higher than expected…A good south facing array will usually produce about 1000 kWh per year out of each kW installed. We typically see 120 kWh/kW in August. We show the array at 71.28 kW, so we’d expect 8554 kW out of your system. The Bainbridge Island array actually produced 9950 from 8/2 to 8/31.”

Good news of course, but there’s nothing “average” about this project.  Our household invested in the project because it combines an opportunity to support our community using a sustainable technology and an innovative local investment model.  Northwest SEED’s website says, “Community energy brings a higher level of economic benefit to local communities than commercially developed projects. Various studies have attempted to quantify this additional benefit, and generally predict 2-5 times the economic benefit will be provided by a project with 100% local equity ownership, versus one owned by an out of area corporation…The actual impact will vary with every community and project, but generally the higher the local ownership stake, the greater the economic benefit to the local community.”

It took several years for this project to come to fruition. The seed was planted during a community gathering organized by Joe and Tammy in 2005. But the enabling policy to make the investment possible and attractive to participants was not enacted until 2010 after years of lobbying by Washington State Senator Phil Rockefeller (also a Bainbridge Island resident).

Washington state’s Community Solar Enabling Act provides direct production incentives to owners of community solar projects up to 75 kW. The law grants community solar projects $0.30 for every kWh produced (twice the incentive for individual on-site production). Projects are eligible for incentive multipliers for using modules and inverters manufactured in Washington, encouraging local manufacturing as well as local ownership. To qualify for these community solar incentives, projects must be located on local government property, requiring innovative partnerships between governments, solar developers and community members interested in supporting solar power.

For the City Hall project, all of the above applies. The city of Bainbridge Island agreed to lease its roof (with its fabulous southern orientation) to the community-based investor group, in return for reducing the city’s electricity costs (potentially by half). All 297 panels and 30 inverters are from the Bellingham manufacturer Itek Energy, making it Itek’s largest single project to date. Seattle-based Sunergy Systems was the contractor selected to install the project.
Part of Community Solar’s appeal is that even when you don’t have the right site for solar, you can invest in a project that does. Ron and Ann Morford wanted to install solar cells on their roof, but shading from nearby trees foiled their plans. Instead, they were able to invest in the City Hall project because “it was a great way to make an investment in sustainable energy, partner with others from our community, provide much needed savings for our local government, and get a future return on our investment.” For the Morfords, it was a “win-win-win” project. It also was a reasonably priced investment, affording participation by regular working folks, such as my husband et moi!

Hopefully this project has paved the way for more like it.

A kiosk will be installed soon in the City Hall lobby to provide information and up to date data on energy production. It will also be the first stop on the Bainbridge Island Solar Tour on Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. You can see the installation and ask questions. The 2012 Solar Tour is Saturday. For more information, go to: http://solarwa.org/2012tour/sites/bainbridge-island.

Kathleen O’Brien is a long time advocate for green building and sustainable development since before it was “cool.” She lives in a green home, and drives a hybrid when she drives at all. She continues to provide consulting on special projects for O’Brien & Company, the firm she founded over 20 years ago, and provides leadership training and mentoring through her legacy project: The Emerge Leadership Project.