CrossCut: Tax Credits for Solar in Washington–Connections Missed

Source:  John Stang, Crosscut, November 2, 2011.  The costs are high enough to require tax credits. But the legislature’s record on the issue this year was one of misses rather than hits, even when lawmakers decided to do something.

Tax breaks for solar power and Washington’s legislature did not have much luck with each other this past session. One tax break zipped through the legislature, but the intended recipient, a long-time Tri-Cities company, soon picked up and moved to Utah without warning–stunning its supporters. Meanwhile, another solar power venture at Cle Elum really wanted a tax break. But that proposed tax break quietly died in May amid delays in sending it to the state Senate.

Solar power barely has a fingerhold in Washington–it provides significantly less than one percent of the state’s power production. But it got a boost in 2006 when voters passed Initiative 937 to require that 15 percent of the state’s electricity must come from alternative sources–wind, solar, biomass, and others–by 2020. Interim targets are three percent by Jan. 1, 2012, and nine percent by 2016.

One obstacle for solar power is that it is one of the most expensive methods of electricity production. It takes $7 to $10 million worth of solar panels to produce one megawatt. That’s where the tax breaks come in–to help defray the costs. And two solar-power tax-break bills were introduced this past legislative session. At a time when the Obama administration is running into trouble trying to promote solar energy, the experience in Olympia may reflect the larger challenges facing efforts to expand solar as a source of electrical power.

One bill specifically targeted the Tri-Cities company, Infinia Corporation, which has existed since 1967 and which developed the Stirling engine for use in solar power generation and other energy-conservation machinery. Several months ago, Infinia unveiled the PowerDish, a new solar-power generating device developed in Kennewick, with each unit capable of producing 3.2 kilowatts.

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