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Community solar comes to Snohomish County

Solar power can feel out of reach. Upfront costs are usually considerable and you need a sunny roof or open space where you can put the panels.

Community solar projects make it more accessible, by allowing ratepayers to buy shares in an installation that’s financed and operated by a group of investors. Utilities around the state, including Seattle City Light and Avista, offer them. Now, Snohomish County PUD is getting in on the game — in a big way.

The PUD's Arlington Microgrid Community Solar Project will be the largest in the state. It will generate enough electricity to power about 50 homes. The array has 1,620 panels and covers nearly 2 acres on a site owned by the PUD, near Arlington airport. Ratepayers can opt to pay for as little as one sixth of a panel, at a cost of $120 dollars. Those investors get credits on their bills for the 20-year life of the project. The utility expects it will take about eight years to pay off the upfront cost.

For the utility, the primary aim of the project is to provide access to more ratepayers. Suzy Oversvee, a project manager and renewables specialist with the PUD, says the utility often hears from a broad swath of customers — people who want to get in on the benefits of solar electricity, but aren’t able to make big down payments or provide a sunny roof for the panels.

“This is an opportunity for people -- who aren’t in the position to do those things -- to buy in at a much lower price,” Oversvee said.  “They don’t have to worry about the maintenance or anything — and they can be renting.”

Oversvee acknowledges her utility has been at the forefront of many projects involving renewables. However, until now, they've been more focused on pilot projects in areas such as geothermal and tidal power.

“Washington is very cloudy and so it just hasn’t penciled out," she said. "But the price of solar has been dropping dramatically over the last few years. So, we thought we would give it a try.”

Shares in the project become available Monday, in honor of Earth Day. The utility says 10 percent of the shares are reserved for a low-income pilot project.

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