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News / Business / Clark County Business

Going solar can work, even in the cloudy Pacific Northwest — but do the math, one homeowner warns

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: August 19, 2023, 6:09am
8 Photos
South- and east-facing panels on Daryl Travis' rooftop soak up the sun on a bright August morning.
South- and east-facing panels on Daryl Travis' rooftop soak up the sun on a bright August morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Whenever the sun shines on his Sifton-area home, Daryl Travis has many reasons to feel great. Cheerful weather is just the start of it.

With two complementary solar-energy systems positioned on his roof to suck up sunshine and translate it into useful electric power, Travis is both making and saving energy. He’s also making and saving money. He’s even helping to reduce the overall load on Clark Public Utilities’ local electrical grid.

“Today we’ll probably produce about 140 kilowatts. We may use 40. Our credit gets applied to the cloudier days,” Travis said while standing in his driveway on a hot, bright August day. Behind him, his rooftop solar array gleamed silently in the sunshine as it fed a couple of power inverters and a battery, all tucked neatly away in the garage.

In the backyard, a third solar system, which isn’t connected to the grid, warmed the swimming pool by pumping its water through a series of black tubes atop a shed, then back down to the pool. The only problem with that, Travis chuckled, is that the pool water tends to get too hot.

Considering Solar?

Check your roof: Google Project Sunroof, sunroof.withgoogle.com/

Do the math: Clark Public Utilities’ Solar Payback Calculator, myaccount.clarkpublicutilities.com/solarCalculator

Did You Know?

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act restored and extended, through 2032, the federal tax credit of 30 percent off all solar installation costs, retroactive to 2022. Before the law took effect, the 30 percent credit was reduced in 2022 and was due to sunset in 2023.

••••

Average energy consumption for one U.S. household is 29 kilowatt-hours per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar power has experienced an annual growth rate of 24 percent over the past decade. There’s now enough capacity to power 26 million homes. Cost to install has fallen by about 50 percent, although recent supply-chain issues and rising “soft” costs like labor, permitting and grid connection have added volatility to the market. Still, many see solar as an essential ingredient in reducing fossil fuel use and slowing global warming.

“We’re concerned about the environment and we want to be as efficient as we can be,” he said. “We want to lower our impact on the world.”

Residential solar has worked out well for Travis and his wife, Jennifer. But he also stressed that, even accounting for substantial financial incentives to go solar — a federal tax credit worth 30 percent of the total cost, no sales tax and a (now-sunsetted) state rebate — the couple made an investment of tens of thousands of dollars. The money came from selling a former home and a loan from Olympia’s Generations Credit Union, which specializes in energy-efficiency upgrades and solar systems.

Solar doesn’t pencil out for everyone, said Travis, an independent contractor for the Bonneville Power Administration. It’s important to get multiple estimates and do your own skeptical math. Don’t let overzealous salespeople tell you otherwise.

“This is definitely a ‘let the buyer beware’ situation,” he said. “Solar works if you are staying in your home for the long term, so you can pay off your loans and start reaping the benefits. I project that in 10 years we’ll have paid off all the costs. It’ll be free money after year 11.”

Clark Public Utilities spokesman Dameon Pesanti also stressed the buyer-beware message.

If you’re approached by a contractor who seems to be offering solar-pie-in-the-sky, he said, take careful notes. Then call Clark Public Utilities to discuss the details.

“We can help you go through them,” Pesanti said. Solar power is “not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Up on the roof

In 2018 the Travises hired Premiere Solar Northwest, which is based in Portland and has installed close to 1,300 systems in the region since 2011.

Premiere’s Cliff Barry explained his company’s approach to evaluating and installing solar at home. First, he said, is the homeowner’s usage requirement. How much power does the household actually use throughout the year?

“Everybody is different,” Barry said. “I may use a lot of power tools and you don’t. You may keep the heat at 72 degrees while somebody else keeps it at 68. There are all sorts of reasons why people’s usage can be really different.”

Averaging a year of monthly power bills is the place to start, but keep an eye on the future too, he said.

“If you’re about to install a charging station for your car, or a hot tub, your bills will go up,” he said. “What is the right target going to be?”

Covering 100 percent of your power needs will insulate you from price inflation, Barry said.

Clark Public Utilities’ online solar-payback calculator can handle the math for you. Go to myaccount.clarkpublicutilities.com/solarCalculator. The calculator will import your Clark Public Utilities bill history so you can experiment with all the variables: equipment costs, roof sizes, loan calculations and more.

Next comes the characteristics of your roof: size, orientation, angle and, crucially, any nearby trees or structures that block the sun.

Get your own preliminary evaluation of your roof’s solar potential by visiting Google Project Sunroof (sunroof.withgoogle.com), which uses the amazingly detailed overhead photography of Google Earth. Google Project Sunroof eyeballs your rooftop, estimates the amount of usable sunlight it receives in a year and provides an overall “yes” or “no.”

If it’s a “yes,” Barry said, “I can do a 3D layout and start laying out panels. We can do anything south facing, east facing and west facing. We don’t do north.”

That’s because, here in the northern hemisphere, the sun crosses the southern sky, from east to west.

“Is there enough capacity to install enough panels to hit 100 percent of your power consumption?” Barry said. “That’s the crucial question.”

Travis’ roof was ideal, Barry said. Its east-west peak line provides a south-facing tilt for panels. Perpendicular roof structures extending north-south over the garage accommodate a few additional panels that tilt east and west, adding an extra boost to Travis’ daily catch by absorbing sunlight earlier in the morning and later in the evening. Few trees are in the way. The sky above a neighborhood park across the street is wide open.

“On these beautiful sunny days, we are producing three times the power we need,” Travis said.

While Travis did get a tired old roof replaced before installing his solar panels, he said, that’s not mandatory. What was mandatory was overlaying a framework of footings and rails to hold the panels, plus drilling several holes per panel through the roof so wires could enter the house. (Barry said his company has a proprietary method of preventing water from ever leaking into those holes.)

Power in the bank

Wait a minute. It’s sunny now, but the Pacific Northwest is infamous for gloomy, cloudy, rainy winters. Doesn’t that mean problems for solar panels?

“That’s a myth — the myth that solar doesn’t work here,” Barry said. “It’s simply not true.”

Even when light is relatively dim or rain is falling, Travis said, his solar panels still produce power, just not as much. The only time they fall to zero production is overnight.

Cooler, milder conditions have advantages for solar panels, Barry said. Rain keeps them clean. In baking Arizona, the searing heat itself reduces solar panel efficiency.

But it’s indisputable that, in these parts, December through April are slow months for solar. The key to making solar work through our gray winter is what’s called net metering: measuring and banking power for later.

A pair of power meters affixed to Travis’ house by Clark Public Utilities measure how much comes down from the roof, how much gets used and how much flows to the grid. Travis gets credited for that excess power. He banks credit most of the year, then draws upon it again to get through dimmer winter months.

The credits expire every April. That’s the logical and advantageous reset time, Travis said, because April is when emerging sunshine pushes his production back into positive territory again.

“Three-quarters of the year we produce far more than we need, and that goes into the bank so we can draw it out during the overcast months,” he said.

Rooftop solar production is good for the whole grid and the community, said Pesanti, the Clark Public Utilities spokesman.

“Solar systems help us lower strain on the electric grid during times of high demand, and they reduce the amount of power we need to purchase to keep everybody supplied with power,” he said. “That benefits all our customers.”

Home and grid

To cover all their power needs, the Travises wound up installing two complementary active-solar systems. (“Active” means the systems convert sunlight into useful electricity. The swimming pool system, which uses sunlight to heat water directly, without turning it into electricity, is called “passive.”)

The first system produces 12 kilowatts, which gets fed directly to the Clark Public Utilities power grid. Travis then buys that same power back at the standard residential rate of 8.16 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said.

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“Clark PUD tracks all our power generation, and they’re obligated to sell it back to us at the current rate,” he said.

To help with the system’s purchase, Travis drew on a federal tax credit worth 30 percent of the total cost and no sales tax. A temporary Washington state rebate system (which is now closed to new participants and waiting for reauthorization from the state Legislature) added even more incentive: an additional 21 cents per kilowatt. That’ll keep paying for seven years, compensating Travis up to 50 percent of the value of the solar system, he said.

The 12-kilowatt system didn’t cover all Travis’ home electricity needs, so, three years later, he added a second, 9-kilowatt system with battery backup.

“The second system is a hybrid,” he said. “It directly powers the house and battery, and sends the unused to the PUD.”

That second system pushed Travis’ total home power generation to 21 kilowatts, he said. That made his system into an inspected, permitted power generator in its own right, he said. Clark Public Utilities buys that power from him for the same 8.16 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said.

Now, from spring through early winter, Travis’ monthly bill from Clark Public Utilities shows nothing but credit. Plus, he gets annual rebate checks from Washington (from the closed program that’s now waiting for renewal) for upwards of $2,500 per year. That will continue for several more years.

“We know exactly where our power is generated, and that it is environmentally friendly,” he said.

Solar Santa

Perhaps Travis’ favorite thing about his solar-powered home is the entirely solar-powered Christmas light display he gleefully puts up every year. More than 200 multicolored stars, swirling colors and flashing lights add a slightly psychedelic spin to traditional candy canes and Christmas trees.

“We have over an hour of songs synchronized to the lights that we run throughout the month,” Travis said. “As far as I know I’ve got the first solar-powered Christmas lights display in the state of Washington.”

The price of powering those happy lights and seasonal sounds? Zero, Travis said.

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