Access to abundant, clean, renewable and low-cost hydropower has been a source of pride for Benton PUD since we became an operating utility in 1946. Historically, this low-cost, renewable resource was the cornerstone of our local economy. Today, our customers also appreciate the role it plays in making our community sustainable now and into the future. Recently, our customers have shown a growing interest in a new renewable energy source, solar power.
Nationally, solar installations on homes have increased by 32 percent annually in the past two years, according to Solar Electric Power Association. Across the state, utilities including Benton PUD are also seeing an increase in requests for solar power. Generous incentives, a decrease in the cost of solar array systems, an interest in environmental benefits and the opportunity to be involved in meeting their own energy needs have helped drive this demand.
With more than 300 days of sunshine, our community is a logical choice for considering solar power. In order to assist our customers, Benton PUD will be launching its Solar Connections program to provide tools for our customers in making decisions pertaining to solar power.
One important consideration is that not every home or business is oriented to take full advantage of the sun’s rays. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates only 22 percent to 27 percent of residential rooftops are suitable for solar installations. Customers need to consider the structure of the roof and location of their house for sun exposure. In addition, they must make a fairly large upfront investment and be prepared to maintain their rooftop system over time.
As part of our Solar Connections program, Benton PUD is following the lead of other utilities across the country and investigating another option, community solar, which is aimed at expanding access to solar power for customers who, for a variety of reasons, may not want to or are unable to install solar panels on their roofs.
Community solar projects are small projects located within a community that allow a number of interested customers to come together to participate in the project. Utilities build and maintain the project and sell units to customers who want a low-hassle way to take advantage of the benefits of solar power. A customer pays a relatively lower entry price for each unit, which will cover the cost and maintenance of the project. In return, participants receive a proportionate credit on their electricity bill for the solar power produced by the project along with renewable energy incentives.
Washington renewable energy incentives are some of the highest in the nation, which has helped prompt community solar projects across the state. Other utilities that launched community solar projects found that customers quickly purchased all available units as projects were announced. In fact, this high level of interest has prompted these utilities to offer additional phases to meet customer demand.
Based on our research and a desire to continue to be the trusted energy partner in our community, Benton PUD plans to offer our customers an opportunity to participate in a local community solar project. We have a prime site selected at our Kennewick facilities with excellent sun exposure and close proximity to existing electrical infrastructure. It will be funded by interested customers who purchase a unit(s) to cover the initial construction cost of the project along with ongoing maintenance expenses. We plan to seek customer interest and break ground later this year.
Customers will be kept informed of the project details and how to participate through our newsletter, website and direct mail. For more information, visit BentonPUD.org and click on Solar Connections.
While the community solar project is relatively small in size, it is an opportunity for Benton PUD to add solar power, along with hydropower, to our clean energy portfolio and provide another way for our customers to support a sustainable community for years to come.