Solar power gaining momentum in Seattle

Source:  KPLU Radio website, August 8, 2011.  From carousels to picnic shelters and libraries, solar power is becoming more commonplace in Seattle.

City Light says it has seen big growth in customer demand for alternative energy over the past decade – and small solar is one of the biggest draws.

City Light’s first solar installation began providing power to the Seattle Center’s Northwest rooms, in honor of Earth Day 2000. A year later, the utility interconnected its first homeowner with solar panels.  Now there are 31 demonstration projects throughout the city and hundreds of customers inquiring every year about how to offset their electricity bills by installing solar panels in their homes.

A demonstration project

At Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, kids are all smiles as they climb onto the hand-carved wooden ponies of a carousel that was built in 1918.  The historic value of this merry-go-round is enough to draw crowds, but for six months now it’s had another very special feature.  “The carousel is powered by the sun,” says the zoo’s capital program manager, Jim Maxwell.  Four arrays of solar panels installed on the roof generate more than enough electricity to make the carousel go round.  The zoo partnered with Seattle City Light to become a demonstration project – and prove that.

“A small solar installation like this is something someone could do at their own home,” Maxwell says. “And we get 1.2 million visitors every year, who now are exposed to the idea of a solar installation in Seattle. We’re showing that in fact, they work incredibly well.”

No longer pie in the sky

The momentum for small-scale solar is growing. Seattle City Light says they now have 400 residential customers with solar panels that are connected to the grid. Jack Brautigam, renewable energy program manager for Seattle City Light, says he’s seen the price of solar systems cut nearly in half over the past decade – and whole neighborhoods wanting to get in on it.

“We’re seeing communities like Queen Anne and Magnolia and others organize to buy solar for their community by signing agreements with installers, so that if they buy enough systems, the price comes down even further, kind of like a bulk buying co-op,” Brautigam said.

Those co-ops come together through a group called Solarize Seattle.  It says 160 Queen Anne residents have signed up for a contract that will generate 130 Kilowatts of solar power in their neighborhood.  Magnolia’s project is still accepting applications and the non-profit behind the effort is working on adding more neighborhoods to the mix.

As more and more small solar projects come on line, utilities are moving into a new era of “dispersed energy,” power comes from many, many small independent entities. Big utilities taking part in demonstration projects like the one at the zoo are a first step in that direction.