Solar Industry Has Grown in Whatcom County
by Giovanni Roverso
Environmental laws have been burgeoning in Washington state recently, despite the federal downplaying of environmental stewardship under the Trump administration.
Governor Jay Inslee announced an array of new climate-related policy proposals in mid-December 2020. If passed, these policies — dubbed the “Climate Commitment Act” — would reinforce previous climate measures while also raising the stakes for industry, transportation and housing.
Bellingham is in the thick of it. The solar industry is as strong as ever, with three member companies of the Washington Solar Energy Industry Association (WASEIA) operating here.
Two solar contractors based in Bellingham, Ecotech Solar and Western Solar, have been at work for almost two decades. Meanwhile Canadian solar cell manufacturer, Silfab, operates a fabrication plant on Cornwall Avenue with a production capacity that was doubled recently and which produces a new, more efficient kind of panel.
The following sections will cover how far Washington has come and how far it might go with clean energy, how the solar industry has grown in Whatcom over the last 20 years and what’s been going on in the local solar industry.
Climate Commitment Act Proposed
On top of almost $13 million already available in the 2020-21 state budget to get some programs rolling, like a clean fuel standard, the governor’s proposed climate package calls for spending about $400 million between 2021 and 2023. The biggest chunk of change would be spent on transportation, including $190.2 million to continue ferry electrification. Another $46.5 million would go toward electrifying and decarbonizing other parts of the transportation industry.
The next biggest chunk, $141 million, would be spent on investments in emission-free and high-efficiency buildings. And, finally, $65 million would go toward electric grid modernizations, “clean energy” loans, research and development for new “clean energy” technology and toward biodigester projects associated with dairy farms.
A Democratic majority in both the state House of Representatives and Senate makes the policy package appear at the perfect time, if not for the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic. But investing in a cleaner and more energy efficient economy does breathe life into it, while promising savings down the road.
Underpinnings of the Transition
In 2020, Washington reached the end of a line of renewable energy targets set by the 2006 Energy Independence Act (Ballot Initiative 937). (1) The final target required major electric utilities to provide customers with 15 percent of electricity from renewable sources.
Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which provides electricity to eight counties in western Washington (including King, Whatcom and Skagit counties), surpassed the renewable energy target, hitting about 20 percent by the end of 2020.
Wind power makes up almost all of its new renewable energy investments (solar power sources, which are owned by customers, and pre-existing hydroelectric power sources aren’t included in the 20 percent).
The Energy Independence Act doesn’t impose any other requirements targeting renewable energy specifically, but it will continue cinching in the belt on emissions for the next three decades. In fact, it requires that major utility companies reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, then 25 percent below those levels by 2035 and 50 percent below by 2050. (2)
But the Energy Independence Act was virtually eclipsed by the Clean Energy Transformation Act (Senate Bill 5116), Washington state’s more radical piece of climate legislation passed in 2019. The new law mandates that coal be completely removed from utilities’ energy mix by 2025, that energy production be carbon neutral by 2030 and emission-free by 2045.
Utility companies will have to replace coal power plants with natural gas plants as they build up power sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide. (The Northwest Power and Conservation Council is tracking ongoing research on leaks during methane production and transportation. The council indicates that research on this could have policy impacts.)
It’s going to be a busy next five years for PSE, a company that relied on coal for 36 percent of its energy mix in 2018. That’s about 20 percent more than the Pacific Northwest and Washington averages. In 2019, PSE increased its natural gas power capacity, bringing it from 20 percent to 31 percent, with little change in terms of renewables.
The company did build a 274 megawatt demonstration wind and solar facility near Ellensburg in 2017, but the 502 kilowatt solar array there is just used to power its service station. But, as mentioned above, PSE did reach 20 percent renewable energy capacity by the end of 2020 and that was almost completely achieved with new wind power, essentially doubling wind power compared to 2018.
Throwing Solar in the Balance
Only one percent of the electricity in the Puget Sound Energy power grid comes from solar energy, according to 2019 data. It’s comparable to the regional average for 2018, but a far cry from California’s 11.4 percent solar. However, Washington is much better equipped when it comes to hydroelectric power.
Power is regularly shared across states as administrators look for the best grid balance. High-voltage power connections take hydroelectricity from Washington’s dams to California in the winter. In the summer, when the sun shines longer and less rain falls in Washington, California solar power often gets sent up to Washington.
A similar exchange happens within the state, between power users who produce excess solar energy in the long summer days and power companies that provide electricity at night or in the winter.
Markus Virta, Western Solar’s director of sales and business development and the Washington Solar Energy Industry Association’s newly elected president for 2021, said power companies have to burn more fossil fuels to keep up with demand in the summer once the sun goes down. The winter is better.
“Hydro can act as a natural battery storage system for our region,” Virta said. “And we’re fortunate for that.”
Lithium battery systems are also an increasingly valid option for storing excess power for later use, and solar hardware in general is cheaper and more efficient than it ever was. Any solar installer will tell you that there’s never been a better time to make the plunge.
Prospective solar users can also make use of tax breaks and federal investment tax credits, but the long-term incentive comes from net metering.
Getting the Most Out of Solar
“All summer long you’re building up, essentially, a bank of credit that you use against your bill in the wintertime,” Virta said.
Power companies are required to give users credit for the excess energy their solar panels generate. Utilities credit solar customers one kilowatt for every kilowatt they put into the grid. When redeemed, the credits are deducted from users’ bills at their regular rate.
The excess carries over every month, typically until the end of March of every year when the credit is reset.
The Solar Fairness Act of 2019 is the latest Washington net metering law, bringing the standard up to date. A new law will likely have to be passed again before the end of the decade.
Virta said the Washington Solar Energy Industry Association is working on a framework and plan for what happens after the state’s main utilities reach the next net metering threshold. That’s the threshold after which they are no longer required to offer one-to-one net metering. You can keep up with that at waseia.org and on how close your power supplier is getting to that threshold at energy.wsu.edu. (3)
Laws can get outdated fairly quickly. They’re often a compromise between various stakeholders and may have to coincide with spending bills subject to partisan negotiations.
Solar power in the United States has grown by 52 percent year by year on average since the introduction of the Federal Renewable Energy Tax Credit program in 2005. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the program has helped grow the U.S. solar industry by 10,000 percent in that time.
Under the federal program, installing a new solar array would let you get back 30 percent of the project cost, deducted from your income taxes.
The tax credit has had to be extended periodically. But it was last set to reduce to 26 percent for 2020 projects and to 22 percent the next year. However, the federal spending bill dubbed the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed at the end of December 2020 extended the tax credit at the 26 percent rate for two more years.
Washingtonians are in a great place now, and, to top it off, they no longer have to pay taxes on solar projects under 100 kilowatts for the next 10 years after the Clean Energy Transformation Act.
EnergySage, (4) a service that compares solar contracts, says it can take about 12 years on average to make your money back on a 5 kilowatt solar array, and says you could save about $14,000 over a 20-year period on power bills after including all related costs and incentives. (5)
Solar Industry Picks Up Pace
It took 40 years for the United States to reach one million solar installations in 2016, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. But by 2020, that number more than doubled.
Locally, Puget Sound Energy just hooked up its 10,000th solar customer. (6)
PSE has stated that it only added 500 solar customers in the first 10 years after 2000, meaning 9,500 new customers were added in the past 10 years.
As for Bellingham-based contractors, Western Solar, established in 2002, passed 1,600 installations recently, and Ecotech, established in 2004, is about to pass its one-thousandth installation.
People are recognizing that solar is going to be vitally important going forward, said Dana Brandt, founder of Ecotech Solar and Washington Solar Energy Industry Association president for the past six years.
Brandt said the Washington solar market is primarily residential, but some commercial projects do come up once in a while. Ecotech operates mostly in Whatcom County. The company just started work on a large solar array installation at the Bellingham Cruise terminal. Western Solar operates as far south as Olympia and has been King County’s primary commercial and industrial installer for the last six or seven years, Virta Said.
“What has driven the growth of the last decade or two is increasing interest in clean energy and decreasing costs,” Brandt said.
In fact, the cost of solar has dropped tenfold or more over the last 10 years, Virta said, from a permitting and engineering standpoint, but also a manufacturing standpoint. A big component of this cost reduction is economy of scale, Brandt said.
Silfab Completes Plant Upgrades
Bellingham is home to a photovoltaic panel fabrication plant of its own. The plant was established in 2017 and operated by Itek Energy. In 2018, the building was taken over by Toronto-based Silfab Solar, a leading North American panel manufacturer.
This purchase came after the Trump administration imposed a tariff on solar panel imports. Now, Bellingham is an important part of Silfab’s U.S. market strategy.
Silfab Marketing Director Lorraine Hoefler said the solar industry has a strong outlook in the United States and that the company anticipates continued growth.
“Over the past two years, Silfab has invested millions of dollars to design, engineer, develop and purchase new solar manufacturing equipment to further automate, upgrade and expand the facility that formerly manufactured Itek solar modules,” Hoefler said.
The company partnered with Dutch multinational corporation Royal DSM to incorporate its conductive backsheet technology in its solar panels in 2018, promising efficiency boosts of 3 percent. Three percent is nothing to scoff at when the average solar panel efficiency is between 15 and 20 percent.
The technology allows photovoltaic cells to be linked up at the back via a patterned foil mesh layer so less space is wasted on the sun-facing side (with the added advantage of being more aesthetically pleasing).
Silfab was the first to produce back-contact solar modules in North America, Hoefler said, starting in 2019. The company produces back-contact modules in Bellingham and is coming out with a new, more efficient model in early 2021.
Hoefler said the new panels (possibly called the SIL 3xx W series), which hit 20.8 percent efficiency for the 370 watt module, will be one of the highest efficiency modules made exclusively in the United States.
Silfab, which had an overall capacity to produce 180 megawatts worth of panels in 2014, ramped up to over 800 megawatts by 2020, Hoefler said.
The company has partnerships with at least five of the top 10 North American residential solar developers. The company has also had various partnerships with nearby educational institutions.
Working With the Community
The University of Washington’s Clean Energy Testbeds’ program had a contract to test Silfab products, work that occurred a year and a half ago, according to Michael Pomfret, the testbeds’ managing director. Later, a UW professor’s research group and Silfab’s Product Development Department proposed a joint research project to the DOE, but that ended up not being funded.
Western Washington University is also working on an energy efficient tiny home model called project ZeNETH which Silfab and Western Solar have donated panels and equipment to.
Solar is a much better bang for buck nowadays. Anyone considering a solar project can go above and beyond what was once possible. Locally operating companies also help with low-income housing projects, helping coordinate fundraisers, donating equipment or doing work at cost.
You can read the article about low-income energy-efficient home building in the March issue of Whatcom Watch.
Sehome high school’s 2020 rebuild also benefited from donations, which enabled the school to bump up from a planned 39 kilowatt array to a 100 kilowatt array, according to a Bellinghamschools.org post. Dawson Construction donated $100,000; Silfab donated a mix of 325 conventional and back-contact panels, most of them produced in Bellingham; and VECA Electric donated the labor to hook them up.
Hoefler said Silfab’s donation will allow students to study Silfab’s research comparing the different kinds of panels.
Cruise Terminal Goes Solar
Even without donations, public institutions are supporting the transition to clean power with large installations.
Beginning in January 2021, Ecotech began installing a 131 kilowatt solar panel array at the Port of Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Fairhaven. The port was originally only going to install 100 kilowatts. The project should cost about $220,000, including project design, according to Adrienne Hegedus, Port of Bellingham environmental specialist.
It will provide more than enough power for the terminal, which facilitates ferries to and from Alaska. It also hosts Salish Sea commercial touring boats, and a variety of tenants. Plus, the terminal space includes the “Dome Room,” a large event facility.
“We made an 18-year commitment to Phase 2 of PSE’s Green Direct program,” Hegedus said, “which means that the electricity used at all of the port-operated facilities in Bellingham will be supplied by solar and wind energy starting in Q1 2021.”
The power produced will be used with a net-metering plan and will not be used to charge any of the port’s vessels or vehicles. This is because of a lack in terms of infrastructure, which Hegedus said is generally the case in Washington.
3. Keep track of utilities’ net-metering threshold — energy.wsu.edu/RenewableEnergy/NetMetering.aspx
4. Cost of solar in Washington — energysage.com/local-data/solar-panel-cost/wa/?rc=seia
5. All Washington solar incentives — programs.dsireusa.org/system/program/wa/solar
6. PSE’s 10,000th solar customer. youtu.be/pVnHPz77aIE
Giovanni A. Roverso is an Italian-American visual journalism major at Western Washington University. Portfolio and blog at www.giovanniroverso.com.