Clark Public Utilities lifts hold on solar program

Commissioners also OK participation in state incentive effort

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer



Clark County residents interested in harnessing the power of the sun to energize their homes and businesses just got an extra reason to consider installing solar panels.

The Clark Public Utilities Board of Commissioners lifted the hold on new renewable energy system registrations for its cost recovery program, doubled the cap on its net metering program, agreed to participate in the state’s new solar incentive program and authorized the sale of remaining units in its community solar program.

“The utility is certainly prepared to answer questions, (and) there remains some uncertainty to how this program will be administered, but solar contractors have a new incentive program to factor into their conversations with interested homeowners,” said Clark PUD spokeswoman Erica Erland.

Jordan Weisman, owner of Sunbridge Solar in Vancouver, said he was “certainly encouraged” by the commission’s vote. Between their decision and the new state solar program, he expects it to be a boost for the local solar industry.

“I think we’re going to be entering into a period of a lot of installations again,” he said.

In February 2016, the commission placed a hold on registering new renewable energy systems because the utility was concerned about spreading the limited amount of state funding too thin.

More people were interested than there was state incentive funding to support the effort.

However, the state’s new Production Incentive Program, which runs Oct. 1 through June 30, 2029, gives utilities additional funding to alleviate the over-enrolling issue.

With a new incentive program coming into place, Clark Public Utilities expects more people will install solar panel systems. The utility doubled its net metering capacity from 0.5 percent of its 1996 peak load to 1 percent. Prior to the expansion, the utility was at 83 percent of its net metering capacity.

Net metering participants can offset their energy use at the retail rate.

The new program budgets $110 million and opens up incentives for residential, commercial, community and commercial shared solar systems.

Like the current Renewable Energy Cost-Recovery Program, the new program will offer incentives for installing renewable energy systems, but at lower rates than the prior. For all but commercial shared systems, it caps incentives at half of their system costs or eight years of annual incentives, whichever comes first.

All existing solar customers that signed up under the state’s existing program, the Renewable Energy Cost-Recovery Program will still get the same incentives they’re currently receiving though June 2020.

Also, the Washington State University Energy Extension office in Olympia will take over administration of the program starting Oct. 1. The office also may charge new customers up to $125 for registering their system.

Erland said the utility will help facilitate the process and walk customers through the administration of the program.

Clark Public Utilities staff said the new program also runs the risk of closing early if too many people around the state register.

Clark maintains several electricity-generating solar arrays through its own community solar program. The systems were funded by customers who bought small shares of them expecting to recoup their costs through state incentives and alternative energy credits.

When the utility first offered its community solar program in 2015 it was highly sought after and the shares sold quickly.

Utility officials put a hold on new investments due to high demand, and amassed a waiting list. Now the utility plans to market and sell small shares in its existing community solar program. The existing shares will be sold for $75, with an expected return on investment in about three years in the form of three payments. Those will first be offered to customers on the existing waiting list.

Under the new program, Clark Public Utilities will have the option to develop new community solar projects. Again, there is a risk the program’s $110 million budget could be exhausted before new participants collect their 50 percent incentive.

The utility hasn’t made any decision on building new systems yet.