New community solar projects targeting lower-income areas
Community solar projects have been part of the clean energy landscape in Washington since about 2005. The idea is to offer ratepayers who don’t have a good place to install solar panels at their homes - or enough funds to pay for an entire system - the chance to purchase shares in a larger project, offsite. They then get credits on their bill for the clean energy produced.
Now, the City of Everett and the Snohomish County Public Utility District are partnering for a new kind of community solar project. The revenue it generates will help low income households pay their energy bills.
“Not everyone's going to be seeing credits on their bill on a monthly basis,” says Snohomish County PUD project manager Suzy Oversvee. “But (…) the funding itself is going back into the community and back to people who really need it."
The solar array will sit on what is now an open field: nearly two acres of city-owned property next to a popular park in South Everett.
It will have a capacity of 375 kilowatts, enough power for about 40 homes in this lower-income neighborhood, with lots of apartment buildings and schools nearby.
“Lots of families come to the park or play fields, you know, lots of soccer teams on the weekends,” she says. “So just an opportunity to provide more education on clean energy, right here in Snohomish County.”
Oversvee says it will reduce the load on the area’s congested grid. And the revenue from it will flow into a longstanding fund called Project PRIDE that provides emergency grants to ratepayers in need.
The revenue will increase funds for the emergency grant program by about 30 percent, or an estimated $27,600 in energy credits a year. It’s one of nine new solar projects that are partially financed by the state’s Clean Energy Fund – all aimed at affordable housing or subsidies for lower income communities.
Glenn Blackmon manages the energy policy office at the state Department of Commerce. He says these are the kinds of projects that were previously left out of the state’s investments in solar power.
“So this most recent round of grant programs was directly targeted at trying to do better on that point and to develop programs that would provide direct benefits to low income households,” he says.
That round of funding provided a total of $3.7 million for the nine projects, which the state estimates will result in a total reduction of $6.1 million in the energy burden on low-income households and nonprofits serving low-income communities over a 25-year period.
The state Clean Energy Fund will cover roughly half the estimated $1.5 million cost for the highly visible solar array at Walter Hall Park, in South Everett. Groundbreaking is scheduled for later this year with completion expected in 2023.
Oversvee says the utility had a rough idea that they wanted to do something new and more equitable with their next community solar design.
Their first, developed in 2019, is part of Snohomish PUD’s Arlington Microgrid site and sells energy units to customers interested in promoting solar power. But it was the state funding program and its call for proposals to benefit lower income households that really provided the spark and got the Everett project going.
“Yeah, that was the impetus to really put pen to paper and figure it out,” she says.
More projects like this are expected to start popping up statewide. The legislature passed a law this session that provides up to $100 million dollars over the next eight years to fully fund solar projects that benefit low-income households.
It will be administered by the Washington State University Extension Energy Program, beginning this July. Funding is available to cover up to 100 percent of the costs of the projects, including planning grants.