Friday, November 23, 2012

Going Solar With A Group Makes Switch Cheaper

Joan Schrammeck not only has a $461 credit on her electricity bill, the state of Washington owes her $800 as well.
Kevin Bell (left) and Guy Knoblich place a solar panel into
an array on the roof of a Camano Island home Wednesday
afternoon. The panel is part of a 16-panel installation.
Each panel fits into the frame installed across the roof.

That's because she generates power at her Camano Island home with solar panels, sells some of it back into the grid and also is given credits by the state for the power she produces.

"I'm thrilled, and I'm thrilled to be helping strengthen the grid," said Schrammeck, whose solar panels were installed in May.

Schrammeck was not only interested in putting a solar power system on her own home, she wanted to help others get it done, too. That's why she volunteered as an organizer for Solarize Stanwood-Camano, in which 23 residents signed up for solar installations as a group, saving the contractors money and in turn knocking about 10 percent off the price.

People signed up for the program earlier in the year and most of the installations have now been completed, Schrammeck said.

A similar program is now under way in Mukilteo. Others could come later, depending on interest.

The Snohomish County Public Utility District is working with Northwest Seed, a Seattle nonprofit organization that promotes green power, to get the groups started and sort through the options.

In addition to the group discount, help in sorting out the choices is one of the biggest advantages of the program, participants say. Representatives from the PUD, Northwest Seed and, later, installers attend community meetings and explain the various types of systems and incentives available.

"It narrowed all the zillions of options down to three for our community," Schrammeck said.

Solar power systems are expensive up front, and every discount helps. Schrammeck laid out about $20,000 for her system but will wind up paying about $12,000 after incentives, she estimates.

The initial cost did not include sales tax, which the state waives for all solar installations. This incentive will expire next June.

The federal government allows 30 percent of the system's cost to be deducted from the following year's taxes.

The Snohomish County PUD offers customers an incentive of either $500 per kilowatt capacity installed, up to $2,500 for residences or $10,000 for businesses, or a 2.9 percent loan of up to $14,000 to cover the cost of a new system.

The state of Washington pays 15 cents per kilowatt hour produced for systems with out-of-state components and 54 cents per kilowatt hour for systems with equipment made in-state.

Schrammeck went for the in-state option. These companies' equipment tends to be more expensive, but over time, the incentive flips it the other way, said Reeves Clippard of A&R Solar of Seattle, one of two installers chosen to do the work for the Mukilteo group.

Schrammeck's system is about 3 kilowatts. This is enough to cover 25 percent of her power needs over the course of the year, she said, with production expected to drop in the winter months. During the summer, the solar power system covered more than 100 percent, and she's been selling power back into the grid, resulting in the credit on her bill.

Schrammeck can apply the state production credit toward her bill in the winter or roll it over, she said.

She estimates her system will pay for itself in seven years. The average for most systems in Washington is about 10 to 12 years, Clippard said.

He attended a meeting recently at the home of Mary Shank, who is helping organize the Mukilteo group. The meeting was attended by about 10 people.

The Mukilteo group followed a similar process used in Stanwood. Interested people attended meetings early in the process, then volunteers interviewed installers and previous customers to select a company for the job.

In both Mukilteo and Stanwood, two installers were chosen and teamed up to do the work for the group.

The PUD chose the areas for the "Solarize" programs based on interest, the number of past installations, the percentage of single-family homes and income level, spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

About 250 people in Snohomish County and on Camano Island have installed solar panels, Neroutsos said, and a healthy percentage of those were in the Stanwood-Camano area even before the program.

"We knew we could build off that momentum," he said.

Ads are bought in local papers and signs put up in communities to get the word out.

Northwest Seed has run three similar programs in Seattle.

"We're there sort of guiding that community group through that installer selection process," said Alexandra Sawyer, project coordinator for Northwest Seed.

The residents take it from there. Each registration period is only three months long, to spur people to sign up and take advantage of the incentives while they're available. In Stanwood it ran from February to May; in Mukilteo it started in July and ends Oct. 10.

"It's a one-time campaign to get a group of people together and talking to each other about solar," Schrammeck said. "What's left is 23-plus solar advocates who can share their experiences."

Shank had a system installed on her home last year, before Solarize Mukilteo started. She had to do all the research herself, a long and laborious process, she said.

"I knew how difficult it was," she said. That's why she decided to help out with the program.

"I felt if I could make it easier for someone else to go solar, I'd do it."


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