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News / Business / Clark County Business

Community solar project set for Camas-Washougal port

Clark Public Utilities’ costumers can join effort beginning Sept. 1

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: August 23, 2023, 5:11pm

Beginning Sept. 1, Clark Public Utilities customers may participate in the utility’s newest renewable energy project, Community Solar East.

Solar can be expensive for homeowners and finicky when determining how to properly fit and position the equipment, said Matt Babbitts, Clark Public Utilities’ energy resources program manager. By comparison, a community model allows for utility customers to invest in a large collection of solar panels in exchange for an annual credit.

Community Solar East is comprised of five solar energy systems that are distributed across five Port of Camas-Washougal buildings, enough to generate roughly 799 kilowatt hours of electricity. The project is large enough that prices per watt are around $1.70, lower than a residential rooftop system that, on average, ranges between $3.30 and $4.50 per watt, Babbitts said.

The way it works: Port of Camas-Washougal serves as a site host, and those participating in Community Solar East fund it. Development costs, including equipment and labor, range around $1.2 million and additional costs for permitting, administrative work and upgrades are $60,000. Clark Public Utilities budgeted $1.7 million to cover expenses as participation fees trickle in.

Construction will begin shortly after the Community Solar East sale goes live, with its operations expected to take effect by January 2024.

Prices begin at $85 per “unit,” which represents 50 watts of a system’s capacity. Mini, five-watt units are available for $10 but do not generate annual credit. Instead, customers receive a participation sticker displaying their community solar participation.

Those who want to participate can sign up online at www.clarkpublicutilities.com/solar.

A homeowner’s return on investment is almost 13 years, a halfway point for the system’s expected lifespan, assuming they collect a 30 percent tax credit from the federal government for participating in community solar, according to the utility.

Clark Public Utilities reserved 300 kilowatts for residential customers and 150 kilowatts each for business and government agencies. The remaining 199 kilowatts are set aside for Clark Public Utilities’ Operation Warm Heart fund, a donor-funded program that provides aid to low-income customers.

This is the second project of its kind in Clark County, the first of which was established in 2015 at the Clark Public Utilities Operations Center in Orchards. The first solar array sold out within a day, leading the utility to install four additional arrays to meet demand — all of which gained complete participation in less than a month.

Altogether, more than 700 customers joined the Orchards system, which currently generates about 319,000 kilowatts annually and powers about 30 homes.

Clark Public Utilities currently does not have plans to establish a third community solar system. However, the idea is not outside the realm of possibility, given how successful the newest project may be.

“If we see really aggressive demand and we’re able to sell out all the capacity quickly,” Babbitts said, “I think that would be a signal we should consider potentially doing another project.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer