How climate concerns and incentives are driving solar installations on Washington roofs

Motivated by climate concerns, Erin Bryn Fetridge in November installed 20 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of her Northwest Seattle home. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

When Erin Bryn Fetridge and Ron Darling decided to put 20 solar panels on their roof this fall, one key motivator drove the decision.

“We want to have less of a footprint on the planet,” Fetridge said. “It probably sounds cheesy, but it’s the truth of it.”

The Seattle couple is part of a growing movement in Washington to embrace solar — despite the Pacific Northwest’s reputation for chronically overcast skies. Residents in the state installed an estimated 38.6 megawatts (MW) of solar power this year alone, a more than 10-fold increase over a decade ago, according to an industry nonprofit. The total residential solar statewide is about 213 MW.

Yet photovoltaics are only a blip in Washington’s overall energy picture. Solar — including residential, business and utility systems — made up a scant 0.3% of the energy mix last year, according to a report on the state’s utilities. New York, which experts say has a similar solar profile, has 13-times the amount of solar installed. Oregon has three-times more.

But that could be changing.

Washington has committed to producing only clean energy by 2045, but still gets at least one-quarter of its power from coal and natural gas (hydroelectric dams provide more than half of the state’s energy). And demand for clean power generated by the sun’s photons will likely rise as life becomes increasingly electric. More people will be driving electric vehicles, traveling on electric ferries and planes, and using electric heat pumps and heat-pump water heaters.

“We get a lot of photons coming free and of infinite quality in the state of Washington,” said Gov. Jay Inslee at a recent news conference. “And we know that we’ve got a lot of roofs to put solar panels on.”

Inslee is urging Washington lawmakers to provide $100 million in grants to support the expansion of solar installations and energy storage in Washington.

At the national level, the U.S. Senate is considering passage of the Build Back Better Act, which boosts the tax writeoffs for people installing solar panels — people like Fetridge and Darling.

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Proliferation of solar power

For years, Fetridge, who works as a talent agent, had wanted solar for her Northwest Seattle home.

Then new neighbors a couple of doors down put solar on their roof. Her aspirations seemed more attainable. So Fetridge and Darling, who builds exhibits at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, recently replaced their aged roof, started removing vinyl siding, and added sorely needed insulation to their walls. Last month they put 6.8 kilowatts of solar capacity on the roof. The installation should be enough to provide 103% of the power they need.

“We need to offset the stress we put on the planet,” said Fetridge. “The little things we do make a difference in the big picture.”

Particularly if others follow suit. Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest utility, reports that 150 customers a month — mostly residential — are adding solar. That comes to about 12,500 installations since 2005.

Fetridge put 6.8 kilowatts of solar capacity on her roof. The installation cost $18,000 and should be enough to provide 103% of the power used by the household. Fetridge should be able to deduct at least 26% of the cost, or $4,680, from her federal tax bill. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

More than 5,000 Seattle City Light customers have solar panel systems, though officials said they haven’t been pushing the installations. But solar could play a bigger role as the city plans for more EVs and distributed energy sources, like home solar and batteries, to cover some of the load.

“We’re in a transitional time,” said Eliza Ives, renewable energy program manager with Seattle City Light.

Solar is being incorporated into projects large and small. The Grow Community on Bainbridge Island has solar power for many of its 119 homes and is a net zero neighborhood, meaning it doesn’t contribute carbon emissions. Seattle’s BLOCK Project put solar panels on the 12 mini houses that it has built so far for people experiencing homelessness. Volunteer homeowners allow the nonprofit to install a home on their property.

Using solar aligns with the nonprofit’s efforts to create a minimal environmental impact, said project manager Bernard Troyer. “Long term,” he added, “this also reduces the financial burden on the project and homeowners who often share utility costs.”

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The incentives

The price of solar has dropped 11% over the past five years, but is still relatively spendy for many budgets.

Fetridge and Darling’s project cost them $18,000. They paid $10,000 in cash and borrowed $8,000 at a 4% interest rate. In essence, their electrical bill has been replaced by the solar loan, Fetridge said.

There are local, state and federal incentives available to lower the costs:

  • Solar energy materials and installation costs are tax exempt in Washington.
  • Solar systems connected to Washington utilities can send excess power onto the electrical grid. Through “net metering” the utilities credit customers for the extra energy at retail rates, lowering the cost of their following months’ bills.
  • Since 2006, the federal government has offered a solar investment tax credit allowing people to deduct from their federal income tax bill the cost of an installation on their home or business. Currently 26% of a project can be deducted, but that drops to 22% in 2023. Build Back Better proposes bumping that up to a previous rate of 30%.
  • In 2017, the state created the Renewable Energy System Incentive Program, which for a limited time pays people for generating solar power. The program reached capacity by 2019 — two years earlier than expected — and is no longer adding participants.

If the 26% deduction holds, Fetridge would be able to knock up to $4,680 from her tax bill. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said.

Future of solar in Washington

Whether state and federal lawmakers approve new programs to give solar a boost remains to be seen.

“2022 looks really good if the Senate acts,” said Bill Will, business growth and development coordinator for the Washington Solar Energy Industry Association.

Recent supply chain challenges that had widespread economic impacts have eased, Will said, though the chronic shortage of trained electricians who install the systems can still be an issue.

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And while rooftop panels have been popular, Todd Currier, director of the Washington State University’s Energy Program, expects to see more large-scale projects being built on the ground. It’s more cost effective: the average rooftop project costs $3 per watt of energy, while ground projects are $1 per watt, he said.

“Rooftop solar has been the prominent type of solar in Washington because of the incentive program,” Currier said. “But large ground-mounted systems are an important part of the mix in other parts of the country and other countries.”

Nick and Marriane Pettijohn are planning to install a solar system on the roof of their nearly century-old home in Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of the Pettijohns)

There are also efforts to boost the number of community solar projects available to people who don’t own homes or whose properties are not suitable for solar. Puget Sound Energy, for example, allows their electric customers to subscribe to large ground and rooftop solar arrays, which generate electric bill credits based on solar production.

Next year, a large-scale utility solar project near the Columbia River is going online, adding nearly 200 MW of solar capacity to the state. But projects like this and others have met opposition from residents living near the developments.

Seattle’s Nick and Marianne Pettijohn have their sights on home solar. The couple replaced a leaky roof on their nearly century-old home in the Montlake neighborhood and received three bids for solar installations. The project is temporarily on hold until they can resolve the flooding that has been plaguing their basement. Time could be on their side.

We have our “fingers crossed the incentives get better or the costs come down,” Marianne Pettijohn said.

But like Fetridge, climate is the big driver for the decision.

“The motivation is to be an active participant in being more energy efficient,” she said, “and doing our bit to neutralize our climate impact as much as we can.”

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