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Solar Power in the Rain City

Liz Jones
10/03/2008

As Congress debates an economic plan this week, some tax measures have been thrown into the mix. One proposal would extend tax breaks for solar energy development. The solar industry says the incentives are vital for more growth...in places like, believe it or not, Seattle. Despite the city's rainy reputation, momentum is building to make Seattle a hotbed for solar power. KUOW's Liz Jones reports.

WELCOME TO SEATTLE…A SOLAR AMERICA CITY. THAT'S WHAT THE SIGN SAYS IN LESLIE MOYNIHAN'S OFFICE.

MOYNIHAN: "These are hopefully going to be put up around entrance to the city of Seattle...where you see the 'Welcome to Seattle' signs."

MOYNIHAN WORKS WITH THE SEATTLE NON–PROFIT NORTHWEST SEED. HER CO–WORKERS CALL HER THE SOLAR GURU.

THE LARGE ROAD SIGN CLUTTERING HER OFFICE IS PART OF AN AWARD FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY. SEATTLE IS ONE OF 25 U.S. CITIES TO RECEIVE A D.O.E. GRANT TO BOOST LOCAL SOLAR INITIATIVES. THE GRANT OPENS UP ABOUT 400–THOUSAND DOLLARS FOR NORTHWEST SEED AND SEATTLE CITY LIGHT TO USE TOWARD SOLAR PROJECTS.

BUT YOU GOTTA WONDER...SOLAR? IN RAINY SEATTLE?

MOYNIHAN: "It's certainly a tough reputation to get over. We are the rain city. But the viability of solar energy technology is also dependent on factors like cost incentives, energy prices. So there are so many more factors than just purely the amount of sunshine we get."

SEATTLE MAY NOT HAVE THE SUNNIEST CLIMATE, BUT IT'S ON PAR WITH GERMANY...THE TOP SOLAR PRODUCER IN THE WORLD. AND SEATTLE'S 'POLITICAL' CLIMATE GIVES IT AN EXTRA EDGE TOO.

MOYNIHAN: "A solar electric panel in Washington, or in Seattle particularly, might not produce as much power in the same amount of time as it would somewhere else. But that power would be worth more here because of our policies and our financial incentives."

FEDERAL, STATE AND LOCAL TAX BREAKS MAKE IT MORE AFFORDABLE TO INSTALL SOLAR PANELS ON SEATTLE HOMES AND BUSINESSES. BUT THE COST IS STILL OUT OF REACH FOR MOST PEOPLE.

CAPITOL HILL RESIDENT FIONA JACKSON SPENT 20–GRAND ON HER SOLAR SYSTEM. AS WE TALK NEAR HER BACKYARD FOUNTAIN, SHE POINTS OUT THE SEVEN SOLAR PANELS ON THE ROOF OF HER MODEST SINGLE–STORY RAMBLER.

IT WAS A HEFTY EXPENSE. BUT JACKSON THINKS IT'S WORTH IT.

JACKSON: "I'm one of those slightly nutty people that even hangs my laundry rather than putting it in the dryer. We don't use a lot of electricity. But we just decided it really wasn't a financial decision as much as an 'it's the right thing to do' decision. We're producing power."

SEATTLE CITY LIGHT PAYS JACKSON 15–CENTS FOR EVERY KILOWATT HOUR OF ELECTRICITY SHE GENERATES. ALL TOLD, SHE AND HER HUSBAND AND THEIR 13–YEAR OLD SON HAVE CUT THEIR ENERGY BILLS BY ABOUT A THIRD.

JACKSON: "We live in Seattle on a very tree–lined street. And in a really awful year –– think how crummy our spring was –– and we still produced 14–hundred kilowatt hours."

THROUGH SEATTLE CITY LIGHT'S NET METERING PROGRAM, JACKSON CAN BANK ENERGY CREDITS ON SUNNY DAYS. THEN USE UP THOSE CREDITS WHEN IT'S GRAY.

STATE REVENUE NUMBERS SHOW MORE THAN 700 PEOPLE HAVE APPLIED FOR NET METERING IN THE PAST THREE YEARS.

BUT IF YOUR GOAL IS ENERGY CONSERVATION, SOLAR IS PROBABLY THE LAST OPTION ON THE LIST. THAT'S ACCORDING TO KING COUNTY ENERGY AUDITOR DAN AUER.

AUER: "People approach us and that's the only thing they want to do on the building. It's an awkward position, ethically, for energy auditor because there are much more cost effective things to do on the house."

LIKE INSULATE YOUR WINDOWS. AEUR SAYS THAT COSTS A LOT LESS AND CAN CUT YOUR ENERGY BILL IN HALF. THAT'S JUST ONE OF DOZENS OF ENERGY–SAVING MEASURES THAT COME BEFORE SOLAR. BUT HE ALSO UNDERSTANDS SOLAR'S APPEAL.

AUER: "You can put it on your house and everyone says, 'oh gosh, it's a solar house.' If you put insulation in your attic, people don't say, ' oh look, they put insulation in their attic.' You know, it's not as glamorous."

BUT A FEW THINGS ON THE HORIZON COULD MAKE SOLAR A MORE VIABLE OPTION. THE FIRST WASHINGTON MADE SOLAR PANELS ARE DUE ON THE MARKET BY THE END OF THE YEAR. PEOPLE WHO USE THEM WILL EARN TWICE AS MUCH FOR THE SOLAR THEY SELL BACK TO THE GRID.

PART OF SEATTLE'S SOLAR AMERICA GRANT WILL GO TOWARD BRINGING COSTS DOWN. NORTHWEST SEED'S LESLIE MOYNIHAN HOPES TO FIND A COMMUNITY APPROACH THAT MIGHT WORK LIKE A CO–OP. THAT WOULD ALLOW MORE PEOPLE TO INVEST IN SOLAR, EVEN IF YOU DON'T HAVE A SHADE–FREE ROOFTOP OR AN EXTRA 20–GRAND.

OUTSIDE MOYNIHAN'S OFFICE WINDOW, IT'S A CLOUDY DAY IN DOWNTOWN SEATTLE. BUT SHE SEES A SILVER LINING.

REPORTER: "I want to see your view here."

MOYNIHAN: "Our view with a lack of solar resource today? It looks pretty gray. You know I do see some rooftops though that probably could host some solar panels. And in the summer they might be crankin' with some energy."

BUT FOR NOW, THE ONLY THING CRANKIN' OUTSIDE ARE RAIN CLOUDS. IT'S ANOTHER DRIZZLY DAY IN SEATTLE.

LIZ JONES, KUOW NEWS.

℗ Copyright 2008, KUOW News

07.18.18

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