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Community solar arrays greet the sun

Project funded by utility customer investors is becoming real in Orchards

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor
Published: June 17, 2015, 12:00am
4 Photos
Bill Doile, left, and Will MacArthur install a solar panel for A
Bill Doile, left, and Will MacArthur install a solar panel for A Photo Gallery

A 2.3-acre grassy field that was used for occasional helicopter landings and Easter Egg hunts is fast becoming the site for Vancouver’s largest solar panel array, thanks to Clark Public Utilities customers who chipped in $100 or more to pay for the solar power demonstration project.

The solar array now under construction is at Padden Parkway and 117th Street in Orchards, just outside the Clark Public Utilities Operations Center. This week, the field is filled with metal poles of varying heights, some with racking frames attached and others with solar panels already in place. By as early as next month, the completed project will generate electricity for the power grid that would power 30 homes.

The $1.4 million project is being financed by over 700 Clark Public Utilities customers who purchased small shares in the project. Each $100 share paid for one-twelfth of a single one of the 1,160 solar panels being installed on the site. The average utility customer investor purchased 20 solar panel shares.

Under the state’s community solar program, those customers qualify for state incentives and energy-generation credits for alternative power. The utility expects that investors will have paid off their investment in less than four years, thanks largely to a state incentive of $1.08 per kilowatt-hour that expires in 2020. After that, they should make a modest return on their investment through an energy-generation credit that continues for the life of the system, estimated at 20 years. By 2035, the utility estimates, the potential return on $100 would amount to $201.

The solar array is intended as a green energy showcase for Clark Public Utilities, which serves some 190,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in Clark County. The utility purchases just over half of its power supply from the Bonneville Power Administration, the regional marketer of electricity generated by hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest. The rest of its power comes from the utility’s natural-gas-fired River Road Generating Plant in Vancouver and from purchases on the open energy market.

It also is a business opportunity for Washington solar firms. The state incentive program required the utility to use equipment made in the state.

The solar panels were made by Itek Energy at its manufacturing facility in Bellingham, as were the inverters that convert direct current to alternating current. Vancouver-based SunModo built the racking equipment used for the solar panels. A&R Solar of Seattle is building the solar array.

The array is actually five separate projects, each sold separately to investors, sized to meet the state’s rules for the community solar program.

Three of the five solar arrays are 74.8-kilowatt systems involving 272 ground-mounted photovoltaic panels. The fourth and fifth projects sold to investors are smaller due to site constraints.

The first offering of shares sold out in just six hours, said Erica Erland, corporate communications manager for the utility. The second array sold out in two days and shares for the third were gone within a week. The utility sold the fourth and fifth arrays from names on the waiting list.

Erland said she wasn’t surprised at the strong demand for the shares, since utilities in the Seattle area had also found strong demand for investments in community solar programs. “There is a large subset of our customers who are very interested in renewable energy,” she said.

Columbian Business Editor