“You want to know why I want solar?” Stephan Roche asks as he lifts the hatch and plugs his Nissan Leaf electric car in. “It’s this right here.”
Roche works in financial services and lives in the Madison Park neighborhood. He wants to be able to take his car “off the grid” by using electricity generated from solar panels. With a family of five, including 14-year-old triplets, he’s not sure whether he’ll generate enough to keep up with their electricity needs, but he wants to get as much as he can.
He’s been “dreaming of solar” since he purchased his electric car two years ago. When a friend told him about the Solarize Seattle campaign, he immediately signed up.
He told them, “‘As soon as you’re ready to come to Madison Park, I’m in,’ and they got enough people from this area that they decided to come down here.”
Initiating solar use
The greater Madison Park area is the latest neighborhood to get the Solarize Seattle program.
Solarize Seattle is a project started by Northwest SEED, a local nonprofit dedicated to creating local energy from renewable resources. The Solarize Seattle program, which began in 2011, helps neighborhood residents get over the barriers of solar energy so they can install solar panels to create energy to power their homes.
There are three main barriers to installing solar panels, Solarize Seattle project manager Mia Devine said. The technology can be complicated, there is a high initial cost and people don’t have a contractor they can trust.
“In our experience with homeowners, it takes them a long time between when they decide its a good idea to put solar energy in the home and when they actually do it,” she said.
Solarize Seattle has designed its program to address those barriers. One main thing it tackle is selecting a contractor. In its Central/Southeast neighborhood program, it got proposals from five local contractors and picked the one organizers believed is best. By selecting one contractor for the neighborhood, residents receive a group discount.
The group will hold public workshops throughout the summer until October for Madison Park-area residents. As part of the workshops, they discuss the incentives available to homeowners who install solar panels in Washington state.
Attendance at the workshop qualifies residents to a free site assessment from the contractor so Solarize Seattle can get an estimate.
The electricity people generate with solar panels is used in their homes. Through Seattle City Light, more electricity is generated than used, it gets credited to people’s bills and they can use the extra electricity during the winter months.
Solarize Seattle started in Queen Anne and branched out to Magnolia, Northeast Seattle and Northwest Seattle. The solar use doubled in those neighborhoods, Devine said.
She said the goal is to make the process easier for homeowners so solar use can increase in Seattle.
“By doing it with your neighbors, it’s a more comfortable and easier process,” she said.
Even though people in the neighborhoods love the group’s help and support, Solarize Seattle doesn’t know what it will do after the Madison Park neighborhood, according to Devine. Right now, the funding for the project comes from Seattle City Light, and so far, Solarize Seattle hasn’t secured funding to solarize another neighborhood.
Federally, there is a 30-percent tax credit on the cost of solar-panel installation. Washington state residents get paid for the extra electricity they produce; that rate varies from 15 to 54 cents per unit, Devine said. People who use Washington-made solar panels and inverters earn the most (54 cents) for the electricity they produce.
Solar panels cost a typical home between $18,000 and $30,000 upfront, Devine said. The discount from the Solarize program is about 10 to 15 percent, depending on the home. Solarize Seattle offers low-interest loans to help pay the initial cost.
Roche is excited to not deal with trying to find a contractor. He expects the solar panels and installation to cost about $25,000 upfront and $15,000 after he gets the different rebates.
“My expectation is the payback will be five to seven years, but the psychic payback is immediate —there’s no question,” he said.
The goal is to have 100 homes go solar, Devine said.
Sunnier in Seattle?
So do solar panels work in Seattle, where most months out of the year we aren’t even aware there is a sun? Yes, Devine said, noting that that’s the No. 1 question the group gets. The Seattle climate actually helps solar panels in some ways, she said: The rain in Seattle clears dust and pollen off of the panels, reducing maintenance. When solar panels heat up, they lose some efficiency, so Seattle’s air temperature helps cool off the panels and keep them running with higher productivity.
Seattle is actually 15 percent sunnier than Germany, the world’s current leader in solar energy, Devine said.
“If Germany can do it and Seattle is sunnier than Germany,” she said, “we can do it here in Seattle.”
Roche thinks Devine is a “force of nature” with her ability to bring the community together. Everyone is busy, he said, but she’s been able to “make this a priority for a lot of people.”
The best part of the solarize campaign, Roche said, is that it builds around the community in a way “that just buying solar panels wouldn’t do.
“I think everyone loves being a part of the neighborhood and the community; this is just another way to help neighbors and do something that will have a long-term impact,” he said. “Seattle itself and the certain communities are just more progressive. I cannot tell you how excited I am.”
For more information on the Solarize Seattle program, visit solarizewa.org.