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News / Clark County News

Inslee praises community solar project at Port of Camas-Washougal as ‘a personal joy’

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 5, 2024, 8:12pm

WASHOUGAL — Gov. Jay Inslee visited Clark County’s biggest solar array Friday, which he called integral to Washington’s transition to clean energy.

“This is a personal joy to me. It’s giving us optimism for our state,” Inslee said during a tour of Clark Public Utilities’ Community Solar East project.

The system of solar panels — spread across five Port of Camas-Washougal buildings — will generate roughly 799 kilowatts of electricity. The system gives utility customers a chance to tap solar power without having to install solar arrays on their own homes.

The solar panels won’t be operational until late January, but they promise an accessible investment in renewable energy.

Matt Babbitts, Clark Public Utilities’ energy resources program manager, said the project is sizeable enough to lower prices per watt to $1.70, lower than a residential rooftop system that averages between $3.30 and $4.50 per watt.

Residential, business and government agencies were able to purchase kilowatt hours in September. Babbitts said homeowners will have a return on their investment in about 13 years, the halfway point for the system’s expected lifespan of 25 years. This is assuming they collect a 30 percent tax credit from the federal government for participating in community solar.

Dave Ripp, Port of Camas-Washougal chief executive officer, said he received calls from around the county — as far north as Amboy — when the project was announced. The initial surge of community enthusiasm was infectious, he said.

Those who are low-income can opt in, too. House Bill 1814, passed in 2022, created a community incentive program that enabled Clark Public Utilities to dedicate 199 kilowatts, 25 percent of its project, to the utility’s Operation Warm Heart fund, a donor-funded program that provides aid to low-income customers.

To illustrate, 199 kilowatts will generate 228,850 kilowatt hours annually, which amounts to roughly $18,670 in grant funding for Operation Warm Heart. During the system’s lifespan, that totals to more than $460,000.

“Everybody in the community can access it, including people who are low-income — people who may not own their roof,” Inslee said.

Program history

Community Solar East is the second of its kind, followed by a similar project established in 2015 at Clark Public Utilities’ Operations Center in Orchards. More than 700 customers opted into the system, which currently generates enough electricity to power about 30 homes a year. And it’s less than half the size of the new system at the Port of Camas-Washougal.

Community Solar East’s launch follows the first year of Washington’s cap-and-invest program, which generated $2.2 billion for environmental projects statewide. The complex carbon-pricing tool, part of Washington’s 2021 Climate Commitment Act, requires the state’s major emitters to pay to pollute. According to the Washington Department of Ecology, the program puts the state on track to reach its goal of eliminating most of its carbon emissions by 2050 — if everything goes to plan.

Critics contend the carbon-pricing tool has led to increased gas prices.

In September, Washingtonians paid an average of $5 per gallon at the pump — rocketing upwards of the national average of $3.80, according to AAA. Although prices have since significantly diminished, Inslee said lawmakers will introduce legislation to address fuel companies passing on their compliance fees — putting the onus on consumers.

Inslee said funds from the cap-and-invest program — fueled by oil refineries, gas suppliers and distributors, and other industrial facilities — will aid projects like Community Solar East, those that tap into clean energy resources.

“We got to keep this ball rolling,” he said. “This is one of hundreds of these facilities we need to build so we can defeat climate change.”

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.

Columbian staff writer