Transitioning to solar for meeting energy needs is a steadily growing trend in Clallam County.
Unlike many counties in Washington, both Clallam and Jefferson are exceeding the state goal for net metering systems of one-half of 1 percent of their utility’s peak demand.
“Clallam is up to 184 grid-intertied customers of their 29,000 accounts,” Jeff Randall, solar agent for Power Trip Energy, said. “That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a big success from where we were.”
The Olympic Peninsula has one of the highest percentages of solar electric systems per capita, according to Clallam PUD officials.
Instead of simply pursuing solar electric, also referred to as photovoltaic (PV) systems, as a method of “going green,” Doug Nass, Clallam County PUD general manager, said, in Washington it also can be cost effective.
“It’s becoming more popular especially in this state because of all the incentives,” he said.
The cost to install a solar electric system typically ranges between $2,500-$3,000 per kilowatt after tax credits, but to help offset the costs there are several state and federal incentives, Andy Cochrane, Power Trip Energy president and founder, told those attending the 10th annual Clallam County solar tour June 20.
“Most residential installations are between 7 and 10 kilowatts,” he said. “That usually covers about 30 to 100 percent of the person’s annual electricity needs.”
However, once an approved solar electric system is installed in Clallam County, the system owner and Clallam PUD enter into a net-metering agreement. The agreement allows unneeded electricity produced by the solar system to return to the grid for credit given by the utility.
Additionally, Clallam PUD is participating in a state program through 2020. The Inspired Program targets resident ratepayers pursuing solar, wind and/or biomass energy production.
Clallam PUD has an overall cap of 1 percent of the its taxable revenue to disperse to those enrolled in the program by providing a 12-cent to 54-cent incentive per kilowatt hour produced by the alternative energy source. The program has an individual limit of $5,000.
Through June 2018, solar electric systems less than 10 kilowatts in size are exempt from state sales tax.
Lastly, until the end of next year a 30-percent federal tax credit is available for residential solar electric systems.
“If you’ve been thinking about installing one of these systems, now is a good time because I don’t expect these kind of incentives to be around again,” Cochrane said. “You’re hedging against the rising cost of energy.”
Officials with Power Trip Energy, a solar system installation company based in Port Townsend, have installed 450 grid-tied systems since 2003 in Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties, equating to more than 2 megawatts of power. Until September, Power Trip Energy is scheduled for two installations a week, Cochrane said.
“We’ve been growing consistently by 20-40 percent annually, which is in alignment with the overall state growth,” he said.
In primarily interacting with those interested in pursuing solar electric for an alternative power source, Randall thinks the movement toward solar in the area partially can be attributed to the growing number of California transplants.
“They’re already familiar with the technology and know it works,” he said.
The increasing interest in solar also may be a reflection of the type of person that is drawn to living on the Olympic Peninsula.
“Residents here seem to have more of an overall connection with the outdoors,” Randall said. “There’s also the whole concept of the blue hole.”
The increasing cost of electricity is another reason many look to alternative energy sources, like solar.
“Just look at the river conditions right now,” Randall said.
Given environmental factors, such as the statewide drought, Randall questions Bonneville Power Administration’s ability to continue to provide affordable hydropower to its customers.
While solar continues to be a growing power source, Clallam PUD officials are tasked with balancing the onset of the alternative energy, state regulations and the utility’s existing infrastructure and mode of operation.
Taking steps to prepare for the potential impacts of more individuals producing their own electricity while remaining tied to the grid, the Clallam PUD Board of Commissioners unanimously approved updates to the district’s interconnection requirement policy Monday, June 29.
The Clallam PUD historically has allowed a location waiver for the required AC disconnect (a safety device intended to isolate the inverter from the grid) in the case of remote pedestals, but among the recently approved policy changes, one change eliminates that waiver option.
“Due to the steady expansion of net metering on our system, the proximity waiver for remote pedestals is beginning to have a substantial and growing negative impact on overall system reliability due to the extra time it takes linemen to locate and isolate net meter sources at remote disconnects,” John Purvis, Clallam PUD engineering manager, said.
The AC disconnect requirement could cost future solar electric system users $1,500 to $2,000 for installation. However, Purvis, noted the disconnect requirement also could be met on the utility side of the meter, which could lower the cost to about $600 for the typical customer.
“We understand any additional costs to solar are maybe unfair, but it’s also important to us to maintain our reliability,” Ted Simpson, Clallam PUD commissioner, said.
Although the technology doesn’t exist to take immediate action, another policy change requires current and future net-meter generators to be prepared to implement an enhanced inverter.
Despite the lack of technology, managing “feeder saturation” is a “major topic within the utility industry,” Purvis said. Already utility officials in California are discussing how to best control the increasing number of individual small-scale grid-intertied systems.
“The only way to ensure system stability and acceptable voltage control into the distant future with ever-increasing net metering production is the eventual integration of net-meter and utility control systems and/or the implementation of enhanced inverter,” according Clallam PUD staff’s recommendation for the policy change.
Because Washington, including Clallam County’s solar electric production, is nowhere near the amount of places like Hawaii or Germany, Randall argues these policy changes are premature.
“These provisions seem to be based on a ‘what if’ scenario that does not exist, namely what if solar PV systems were causing problems with grid reliability,” Randall wrote in a letter to the Clallam PUD commissioners. “Also, since the equipment referred to in the standards is not yet commercially available and there is no way to know its reliability or cost, implementing this provision now seems premature.”
Established solar electric system owners such as Glenn and Jeanie Robards are grandfathered in, but still Glenn Robards is concerned with the “perception” Clallam PUD officials are putting out.
“As a customer of Clallam PUD, it makes it look like solar is getting harder to do and we’d like everybody to get this kind of system,” Robards said referring to his own solar electric system.
The Robards installed a 9.81 kilowatt solar electric system on their Sequim home about a year ago. The system produces about half of the Robards’ yearly electricity needs and maintains their electric car.
“It’s not my style to go out in a kayak and protest a Shell Oil rig, but instead I like do something more proactive,” Robards said.
However, with “no crystal ball” to predict the future trend and technology associated with solar, Nass said, Clallam PUD officials have to do the best they can.
“I think this is the best approach for now and going forward,” he said.
Reach Alana Linderoth at firstname.lastname@example.org.