Community Solar: Ellensburg, Washington Gets It Just Right

The Ellensburg, Washington’s publicly owned solar utility is one of  many community solar models we’ll discuss in upcoming articles. (This article was originally published a “Your Ecological House” syndicated newspaper column.) 


The city of Ellensburg owns its community solar utility… citizens gather to learn how the system works (photo: City of Ellensburg)

The city of Ellensburg owns its community solar utility…
citizens gather to learn how the system works (photo: City of Ellensburg)


Why don’t we just get the renewable-energy revolution over with and build one giant solar plant in Missouri to power the whole country?

Just think of the economy of scale. Bigger is better, right? “SolarCorp USA” would take care of everyone’s power needs at the lowest possible rates. Until it didn’t; until there was a cloudy week in Missouri or the transmission line to New York went down in a superstorm.

OK. Maybe a giant, centralized power company isn’t the way to go. Lots of environmentalists tout the advantages of distributed power generation, preferably with all the energy producers hooked up to a “smart grid” that can properly distribute the variable, intermittent input from thousands or millions of sources — a version of the “million solar roofs” scenario that Bill Clinton and Al Gore were promoting in the 1990s.

I had my doubts about the efficacy of that approach even then. Solar, yes. You can’t beat a free, limitless, nonpolluting source of energy. But a million solar roofs? Or, closer to 120 million, since that’s how many houses there are in the U.S. Where’s the economy of scale in that?

There are other problems with the plan. The National Renewable Energy Lab has determined that only 22 to 27 percent of U.S. houses have proper solar access and orientation. Then there is the enormous redundancy of the millions upon millions of circuit-breaker boxes and meters needed for the individual residential or small-building systems — their embodied energy adds up. Finally, there’s the cost: even with the renewable energy credits (RECs) — tax credits and the like — designed to lessen the burden, residential solar systems simply cost more than a lot of people can afford. (Also, RECs seem to have an ephemeral life of their own, coming and going with the political winds.)

Having pondered these problems of scale for decades, I was excited when I learned that the city of Ellensburg, Washington, has built a community solar system. At last, somebody has gotten the scale — and a great deal more — just right. And although there are many approaches to developing “community solar” which we’ll explore in subsequent columns, I must confess that Ellensburg’s model — purportedly the first community solar system in the country — remains my favorite.

The city of Ellensburg owns its photovoltaic system, which sits on an optimum solar site in a city park. (A cooperative ownership model would work too, so long as the physical system is locally owned by citizens.) Savings and system control remain in the hands of the people.

The system’s economy of scale reduces upfront costs and investment risks compared to those of individual residential systems. Overall maintenance costs of the consolidated system are lower than the cumulative costs of maintaining multiple residential systems. Meanwhile the continuous expansion of the system, as more citizen investors opt in, creates good, local construction, maintenance and service jobs.

As a community project and source of pride, the system brings the town together — without regard to wealth or even homeowner status. Anyone, even renters, can (and do) buy a “part of a solar panel” — actually, a certain amount of electricity — for as little as $250. Wealthier people or institutions can buy as many “solar panels” as they can use.

The payback for your investment in a community solar system usually comes as a credit on your utility bill for the proportion of your electricity that was produced by the portion of the solar system you own. That is, for now at least, Ellensburg and most other “community solar cities” get most of their electricity from conventional sources, but the community solar system reduces that supply and credits the reduction to its owners. The system can also remunerate its owners with RECs which can vary in value and type depending on the particular regulations that apply.

But there are other paybacks. Building a community solar system can educate your community, from pre-schoolers to MBAs, about where energy comes from. There is peace of mind: properly wired, the system could keep essential services such as hospitals operating during a regional blackout. And there’s the knowledge that your community is taking a step toward a sustainable future at your ecological house.

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