Community solar program pursued

Clark Public Utilities customers can buy shares

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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Clark Public Utilities is pursuing a community solar project that would allow customers to purchase a stake in putting electricity generated by the sun onto the grid.

The utility is working with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes renewables, to develop the project's design and to prepare a request for bids to build an installation of solar panels.

Not all of the details have been worked out. And the utility's Board of Commissioners must give the final OK before a contractor goes to work, and before marketing and operations begin. But plans call for the utility to build and operate a solar panel array near the corner of Northeast Padden Parkway and Northeast 117th Avenue at the Clark Public Utilities Operations Center.

Utility customers would be allowed to voluntarily purchase shares of the solar facility. Participants would recoup their investment in solar power through annual credits in about four years, according to utility officials, and afterward could expect to see savings on their electric bills.

The idea is to bolster the utility's commitment to renewable energy by offering customers an opportunity to help produce electricity in a way that benefits the environment but that also makes economic sense.

And the community solar model offers the potential for broader participation, utility officials said. That's in part because the program doesn't require homeownership. It also avoids such constraints as a location that isn't conducive to harnessing solar power.

"This is a way for more people to participate," Larry Blaufus, senior manager of customer accounts and energy services for Clark Public Utilities, said in a phone interview Tuesday. Blaufus presented the community solar proposal to utility commissioners during their regular public hearing on Aug. 19. He explained the advantages of the project, how it works, its costs and incentives, and where it's been done elsewhere in Washington.

If all goes as planned, the community solar program could be up and running by sometime early next year. Initially, utility officials said, the program will likely only be offered to residential customers. It could be expanded later to include commercial and industrial customers.

Blaufus said Clark Public Utilities has been examining the feasibility of a community solar program for about two years. Renewable energy incentives offered by the state are helping drive the utility's decision to pursue such a program. Those incentives include favorable rates for solar equipment manufactured in Washington.

Under the Clark Public Utilities proposal, the utility would spend about $394,000 to install and operate an array of made-in-Washington solar panels. The 74.25 kilowatt system (275 solar panels at 270 watts per panel) would provide enough juice to power about five homes annually.

The system would offer customers a total of 2,750 shares at $150 per share, or one-tenth of a solar panel. Customers could voluntarily buy up to 100 shares, or 10 panels. So a customer could spend as little as $150 for a single share (one-tenth of a solar panel) or as much as $15,000 for 100 shares (10 solar panels.).

Purchase of all of the shares comes to $412,500, which covers the utility's cost to install and market the system. The community solar project is the first of its kind for Clark Public Utilities. Washington is home to 19 such projects. Twelve are owned by companies, four are owned by utilities and three are owned by groups or nonprofits.