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Solar paves a new way on Vashon
When Islanders gather for an Earth Day celebration at Vashon High School on Friday, they’ll pay tribute to a remarkable set of earth-friendly accomplishments that has already unfolded at the small public school.
Two electric vehicle charging stations were installed last week, one of them just beneath a set of solar arrays that will deliver enough energy to power the district’s new electric truck — a $42,000 investment in a greener future funded entirely by donations and grants. There’s an educational component, too: Last week, a kiosk went up at the school, where students can see in real time how much energy the solar panels are generating — a project that complements a new course at the school exploring green technology and sustainable design.
But what those who gather on Friday will also discover is that this is just the beginning of what organizers hope will be an even brighter future on Vashon.
Next up, organizers say, is a far-reaching community solar project that could deliver thousands of dollars of sun-powered energy to the district each year, enable conservation-minded investors to put their money to work on behalf of solar power and put Vashon on the leading edge of a nationwide movement.
“We’re in the process of delivering the community another victory and another opportunity,” said Bill Moyer, a member of Vashon Community Solar and the director of the Backbone Campaign.
Gib Dammann, an Island architect and another leader in Vashon Community Solar, agreed. “The potential is just so great.”
The solar activists have formed a new limited liability corporation or LLC that will enable Vashon to do something a handful of other communities in the state are already attempting. Thanks to a set of incentives established by the state Legislature two years ago, those who invest in renewable energy by way of this LLC will not only see a return on their investment but provide the start-up capital needed for a solar project that could shave thousands of dollars off of Vashon Island School District’s annual electricity bill.
If the LLC could build a $450,000 to $500,000 solar array, for instance, the district would save an estimated $5,000 a year in electricity costs and even more as traditional power costs climb, Moyer said. Investors, meanwhile, would receive an immediate tax benefit and could see a return on their investment within seven to eight years.
“We have a window of opportunity that we can’t guarantee will be open for a great deal of time,” Moyer said. “If the community wants to maximize its investment in solar and see a return on that investment, the sooner we act the better.”
The state Legislature passed a bill in 2009 that lays the groundwork for a much greater investment in renewable energy — solar, wind, biomass or other forms — by providing what Jason Williams of Vashon-based Artisan Electric calls a powerful production incentive: For every kilowatt hour produced by a system manufactured in Washington state and placed at a public building, the entity that created the project receives $1.08 to be divvied up among its investors. That’s a significant amount, Williams said, when one considers that a kilowatt hour currently costs Puget Sound Energy customers 10 cents. Investors would also get a one-time 30 percent federal tax credit.
The maximum return any one investor could receive in incentive checks under the state program is $5,000 per year. The incentive program is currently slated to end in 2020.
Under the LLC Moyer, Dammann and other solar activists on Vashon created, the Backbone Campaign would also get a share of the cash incentive. The campaign, known for its feisty, high-profile activism in support of progressive issues, would get a 5 percent management fee — funds, Moyer said, that would be used not only to manage the community solar project but also to support the Backbone Campaign’s ongoing community organizing.
It’s not a lot of money for the small organization, Moyer said. If a 35 kilowatt system were established, for instance, generating $50,000 worth of incentive checks, Backbone would get $2,500 a year.
“We’re talking about a modest slice for a few hours of organizing a week,” he said. But if other such projects based on a similar model could get established, he added, “It could add up to having a half-time or full-time position.”
Because of the state’s generous production incentives and concern that the program might soon be capped, communities across the state have been scrambling to get solar projects up and running, Williams said. But it’s a complex undertaking, and so far, only five community projects are under way in Washington.
“It’s tricky to form the group, ... get people to put in the money, form the business and create the relationship with the host site,” said Williams, who’s currently working with five other community solar groups in the Seattle area. “You also have to figure out what happens when the production incentive’s over. Do we sell the system or enter into a power-purchase agreement to sell the power? ... There’s a lot of stuff to be figured out.”
Even so, Williams said, it’s a remarkable time to be in the solar-power production industry, where Washington is fast becoming a leader.
“Our solar capacity as a state is going to get really big really fast,” he said.
Meanwhile, those who gather at Friday’s celebration will not only look to the future but also take stock of what they’ve already accomplished — an investment in solar power that only a year ago was a mere dream, Moyer said.
Now, after months of work by a number of Islanders, Vashon High School is home to the first electric car charging station, where anyone with an electric vehicle can pull up, swipe a card and recharge his or her car. A solar array that was placed on one of the school’s buildings a year ago has been doubled — now producing enough energy to charge 10,000 cell phones, Dammann said.
And best of all, the project — high-profile and visible to anyone who visits VHS — helps students realize that in rainy, cloudy Western Washington, there’s still enough sun-power to address some of our region’s growing demand for energy.
“This is quite a big thing that we’ve accomplished,” Dammann said. “I don’t know another school that has married so successfully the electric vehicle component, the educational component and the solar array.”
Amy Bogaard, a VHS teacher who obtained a grant enabling her to create a sustainable design and renewable energy class, said she’s pleased that so much has come together in the past several months. Students sometimes seem puzzled that solar can work on a place like Vashon, she noted. As a result, the solar array and kiosk give her an opportunity to talk about the enormous potential some see in solar.
“Solar is all around us, and the technology is growing,” she said. “I compare it to the early days of the computer. ... You have to start some place. You have to walk before you can run.
“I’m really quite excited about it,” she added. “I think it’s a great educational tool.”
Vashon’s solar celebration begins at VHS at 1 p.m. on Friday. It will include live music, some brief speeches and a tour of the school’s new solar system.
For more information about the new community solar LLC, contact Andrea Walker at 200-8188.