‘Innovative project’ brings solar power to two Island buildings

Thanks to a grant from Puget Sound Energy, solar power will come to downtown Vashon this spring when solar arrays — the term for complete solar energy systems — are installed at the Land Trust Building and Vashon HouseHold’s Charter House apartments.

The Solar Initiative, a project of Sustainable Vashon, was awarded a $20,000 grant for the undertaking last week, according to Janie Starr, one of the initiative’s coordinators.

The grant goes a long way in funding the initiative’s goal of installing 10 photovoltaic panels on each of the buildings and providing accompanying educational signage for the public to learn more about solar. There are also plans to provide energy audits and retrofitting of the buildings to increase energy conservation and efficiency, according to Jennifer Williams, the co-coordinator of the Solar Initiative, who noted they will raise additional money to fund the full scope of the Solar Initiative’s vision.

While Vashon HouseHold and the land trust will benefit from the energy created, Williams and Starr say the true benefit of the project is that it will serve as a catalyst for a larger community solar project they hope will be created on Vashon.

“The intention behind this is to bring more awareness about renewable energy to everyone on the Island,” said Williams. “There is something about having it in public spaces that makes it more accessible to everybody.” That accessibility is meant to inspire, and Starr believes the project will.

“This is a really innovative project,” Starr said. “I like it because the size is doable and sustainable. People could imagine replicating it on their businesses or homes. It will serve as a model within this community and other communities and be a stepping stone to a larger community solar project.”

At the land trust, the 10 panels will provide less than half the nonprofit’s energy needs, according to Williams. But the many people who walk by the building or attend school or meetings there will be able to read the signs about how solar energy works and see, from one of the sign’s components, how much energy is being generated at any given moment.

Given the building’s visibility and its mission, the land trust was a good candidate for this public display of the sun’s power.

Tom Dean, the land trust’s executive director, said staff there are excited to throw their hat in the ring around this issue, and while it might not be readily apparent that climate change is part of the land trust’s work, it very much is so.

“Global warming has everything to do with our mission. We had to walk the walk,” Dean said.

At Charter House, the solar panels will provide energy in the common spaces: the laundry room and outside, according to Williams. Residents control and pay for their own energy usage in individual units, but Vashon HouseHold pays for the electricity in the common areas. Organizers hope that the solar panels will provide 100 percent of that energy.

“The money they save can go to building improvements,” Jennifer Williams said, noting that Vashon HouseHold is already planning what it might do with the newfound surplus.

Artisan Electric, which specializes in solar installations, will do the work for the cost of labor and materials, according to Jennifer Williams, who co-owns that business with her husband Jason Williams.

Jason Williams has had a long interest in solar power, and when he began his company on Vashon two years ago, he knew a community solar project would be a part of his work, based on how solar has grown in other communities. In Chelan County, he said, all the public buildings, including the schools, have solar panels.

“It’s a normal thing. It’s solar, and you put it on,” he said of how solar has come to be viewed there.

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is pleased to provide these funds to the project, according to Heather Mulligan, who manages the utility’s Green Power Program, which awarded the grant from its funds as part of its commitment to the development of resources that reduce the area’s carbon footprint.

Mulligan said she hears from people that they want local, renewable energy, and this project is that — and could be replicated anywhere, which is untrue of wind, for example, or methane, which requires dairy farms.

Important to her in making the decision to award the grant, she said, is that Vashon has the highest rate of participation in PSE’s Green Power Program, where customers pay extra to help fund the development of alternative energy. Vashon participates at 7 percent; other communities average about 2 percent.

Mulligan said she also appreciates that the coordinators of the initiative plan to use these funds to leverage other funds to make it “truly a community project.”

Benefits to PSE — which was recently sold to a consortium of foreign investors — are that the the program will raise awareness of the Green Power Program and solar energy, she added.

Jason Williams is appreciative of PSE’s support, financial and otherwise. While some of his customers see PSE as “the Energy Guy, the Big Guy, the Bad Guy,” he has found the opposite to be true.

“The people I’m working with at Puget Sound Energy are as excited about renewable energy as I am,” he said.

While details of the project still need to be finalized, work should begin within the next few months and everything installed and operating by summer.

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