Phil Lynch of Kennewick already knows what a good investment solar energy is.
He has two systems installed at his house and jumped at the opportunity to buy a share of the Benton PUD’s community solar project.
“Where else can you invest money and get a guaranteed return — get all your money back plus interest?” he said.
The Benton Public Utility District showed off its Ely Community Solar Project to its customers Wednesday and held a ribbon-cutting ceremony. An array of solar panels is lined up on the PUD property, visible from Highway 395 at the 10th Avenue intersection.
The project has been operating since July 1, and those who invested will see savings on their next monthly electric bill.
The project is producing just 0.006 percent of the energy the PUD requires for its customers, but is nonetheless an important project, said Chad Bartram, PUD general manager.
It is clean, sustainable energy that fits in well with Benton PUD’s mix of 90 percent carbon-free energy, he said.
PUD customers were offered the chance to buy shares in the project. Those who rent or don’t have roofs suitable for solar panels could invest in solar for its environmental benefits and financial incentives.
Demand far outpaced the project plans for production of 75 kilowatts, or enough to power about six average homes annually. The size was determined by a state cap of 75 kilowatts for its incentive programs for community solar projects.
Benton PUD offered 1,500 units for sale at $250 each. It had offers from 429 customers wanting 5,840 units and had to limit sales to 112 participants through a random drawing.
The total project cost $375,000, all paid by the customers who purchased units. The cost covers the equipment and installation of the panels and maintenance, including clearing off any snow during the winter. The solar panels and inverters that convert current from DC to AC so the power can be used have 25-year warranties.
It is not inexpensive power.
Take out incentives and it costs about $120 per megawatt hour. That compares to about $65 to $70 for the PUD’s wind power. The hydro and nuclear power it purchases through the Bonneville Power Administration comes to about $28 a megawatt hour.
What makes solar so attractive is the incentives, Lynch said.
“With incentives, it’s free,” he said. “There are some upfront costs but you get that back in four years. Everything is gravy after that.”
Because the solar panels and inverters for the PUD community project were made in Washington, investors in the project receive $1.08 per kilowatt hour and a credit on their bill for power produced.
Tom and Ruth Bushaw of Kennewick also were at the Wednesday ceremony as owners of about 10 of the 1,500 units on PUD property.
They knew after installing solar panels on their roof that the technology worked, their bill was reduced and the state rebate was attractive, Tom Bushaw said.
“It seemed like a good thing to do,” Ruth Bushaw said, adding that customers who could not afford to buy into the project still get the benefits of PUD solar power.
The response shows “our community wants to be part of progress, especially sustainability,” said Kennewick Mayor Steve Young.
“We market our community on the amount of sunshine we enjoy each year,” Young said. “How wonderful it is to not only promote it, but to actually capture it.”
The Benton PUD received requests from people who were not customers to participate. Although it had to turn those people down, other local utilities are considering community solar projects. Franklin PUD is close to launching a similar program, said Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Development Council.
Benton PUD plans to continue to look for ways to expand community solar participation within state restrictions. It also will be launching an education campaign on its rooftop solar program, which has about 70 participants now.