One west Pasco couple is looking for any way to take advantage of the sun.
Wayne and Gail Kane have already ordered solar panels for their home off Road 57, interested in generating their own power while also receiving a payback from the state to do it.
But they were similarly enticed by a proposed community solar project Franklin PUD may build as a car canopy at its downtown Pasco headquarters.
“The incentive for theirs is really good,” Wayne Kane told the Herald. “It basically pays for itself in 3 1/2 years.”
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PUD commissioners agreed Tuesday to allow staff to start marketing the proposed project, estimated to cost between $325,000 and $480,000.
Customers could begin signing up Aug. 1 for the roughly 1,600 blocks that will be available through the solar array. Purchase of those $200 blocks is expected to pay for the bulk of the project’s construction.
There are still some challenges to the project, as costs to manage construction are coming in higher than anticipated, but PUD officials said there’s a clear demand and excitement for community solar given early feedback from residents.
“One guy was kind of irritated he couldn’t sign up right then,” Linda Esparza, the PUD’s energy services manager, told commissioners.
The PUD is modeling the array off a similar carport design used at Walla Walla Community College. It would shade 26 parking spaces — half publicly accessible, half within the PUD headquarters fenced compound — and generate 60 to 65 kilowatts of energy with 225 solar panels. Each “block” accounts for 14 percent of an individual solar panel and generates about 53 kilowatt hours annually.
“It’s best to keep the panels off the ground, and if you do tha,t you might as well get something advantageous out of the structure,” said Commissioner Roger Wright of the proposed carport design.
Only one out of four homes in Franklin PUD’s boundaries is suitable for hosting its own solar array, Esparza said. Many customers want to support a renewable energy project.
Providing a community solar project allows renters as well as property owners to participate. It also allows more to benefit financially — each block’s owner will receive $1.08 per kilowatt hour as an incentive from the state through June 2020. That’s about $57 per year.
The current timeline calls for the PUD to work out the design and costs before starting construction as early as November. The array could be online in February.
The success of Benton PUD’s community solar project, which began operating in July and had demand from customers for nearly four times the capacity of the project, is partly motivating Franklin PUD’s efforts.
And Walla Walla Community College isn’t the only higher education institution to invest in solar. Columbia Basin College has installed a 100-kilowatt-hour array on its B Building on the Pasco campus.
However, the state incentives are what makes the project worth it.
“Years ago I looked into solar and it wasn’t cost-effective at all,” Wayne Kane said. “It still wouldn’t be without the incentives.”
And while there would still be some financial benefit from owning a block after 2020 when those incentives sunset, he said it will be a fraction of what it was.
Commissioners had questions about the administrative management of the array, specifically what would happen to blocks of people who moved out of the district. Esparza said blocks could be transferred to another district resident if someone moved, or “orphaned” blocks could be given to nonprofits, allowing them to benefit from the incentives.
There were also concerns about using $155,000 of the PUD’s Rural Economic Development Fund, which has about $470,000, to help finance the project. Without that money, PUD staff said the project would take longer to pay back the residents who invest.
And while the project qualifies for a departure from the state’s standard design and bid process, district staff said the initial offer from the state Department of Enterprise Services to manage the project’s construction came back higher than expected, which could drive up costs.
They are currently looking at other options but remain open to the state agency’s offer.
“We just want to keep all of our options open right now so we can keep the lowest cost,” said General Manager Tim Nies.