Wind turbines are a common sight in Kittitas County, but a different power system is now becoming the preferred choice among residential users.

Solar power is on the rise, and local companies that install power systems are seeing a preference toward solar over wind.

“There’s definitely an increase in solar,” said Dennis Wray, owner of Wray Electric, in Ellensburg. “I think there’s a greater awareness of the incentives that are available in the state of Washington.”

Wray Electric has been in business since 1991, and started installing solar power systems in September 2005. The number of inquiries through calls and emails about solar have increased over the years, Wray said.

“People think of Ellensburg as a windy area, and that’s only part of the story,” he said. “The rest of the story is what the Washington state incentives are. ... Solar is very reliable. There’s very few issues as far as failures.”

Why a change?

When Central Wind and Solar went into business seven years ago, wind turbines were cheaper than solar panels. Today, that has changed, and Central Wind and Solar is seeing more demand for solar.

“Solar has far overtaken wind,” Central Wind and Solar owner Bob Venera said. “Today, solar is cheaper than wind. The equipment cost of solar panels and inverters has gone down. The incentive rate for solar is higher than it is for wind.”

In May 2005, Washington enacted a law that establishing production incentives for individuals, businesses and local governments that generate electricity from solar or wind power. The solar incentive amount paid to the producer starts at a base rate of 15 cents per kilowatt hour, and is adjusted based on factors like whether the equipment used was manufactured in Washington state. The maximum incentive is 54 cents per kilowatt hour, which is for installations using both Washington manufactured panels and inverters.

For a wind turbine, the base incentive is 12 cents per kilowatt hour.

“I’ve been tracking it now for about seven years, who makes what,” with clients, Venera said. “A wind turbine in Reecer Creek would outproduce solar a little bit, but by the time you factor 54 cents versus 12 cents, there’s no comparison.”

Washington also passed a bill that provides incentives for community solar projects, solar energy systems up to 75 kilowatts that are owned by local entities and placed on local government property or owned by utilities and funded by utility ratepayers. The bill, effective July 2009, provides incentives ranging from 30 cents to $1.08 per kilowatt hour, and each participant in a community solar project is eligible to apply for the incentive.

Both incentive programs have a $5,000 incentive cap per year, and incentives are paid in July at the start of the state’s fiscal year. The Washington state utility rebate program is in effect through June 30, 2020.

People using solar are also eligible for the solar Investment Tax Credit, a federal policy that gives residential and commercial solar users a 30 percent tax credit.

Other benefits

Aside from the greater financial benefits, solar panels are easier to install and maintain than wind turbines.

“Actually, solar — even in Ellensburg with the amount of wind we get — is by far the more consistent,” Venera said.

Once solar panels are installed, there is little to no maintenance required. The solar panels work on foggy and sunny days, and the only time they don’t work is if they’re covered with leaves or snow.

With solar there are no moving parts that can break, since the panels are stationary. Warranties on the panels are typically up to 25 years, Venera said, with a panel expected to last upward of 30 years.

“There’s panels that are out there 50 years old that are working,” he said.

Personal use

Tim Boyle, a homeowner in South Cle Elum, had two freestanding solar panels installed on his property last year that went operational in August.

The power generated by Boyle’s solar panels goes into the grid, meaning it goes to the local energy company, and is redistributed to other homes. It could end up going to his neighbors’ homes or all the way across the city.

Boyle said he could just use the power for his own home, but the credit for putting the power into the grid has better incentives.

“The state will pay me 54 cents per kilowatt hour for every kilowatt hour I produce. ... If it went directly to my house or a battery bank then I wouldn’t be getting that payment,” Boyle said.

Maintenance on the solar panels is relatively low. Boyle said he washes his panels once a year with a brush that is similar to what one would wash a car with. He realigns the panels a few times a year to make sure they’re perpendicular to the sun.

“In the winter when the sun is low you have to tip it up so it’s facing the sun for maximum output,” he said. “This time of year you tip it back so it’s almost flat, so it’s pointed straight up.”

Boyle will see his first payment from the state this July, and expects to receive between $3,500 to $4,000, based on his calculations.

“We’re guessing that once it’s paid off (the equipment), it should produce somewhere in the $4,000 profit up until 2020 when that changes,” he said. “After that it would drop down to $1,500 a year unless they renew the program.”


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