When Dana Brandt started installing solar panels on homes in Bellingham nine years ago, people wondered what was next - screen doors for submarines?
"You can imagine what people say," says Brandt, sitting in the conference room at his company, Ecotech, on a cloudy December day.
The northwest corner of the Pacific Northwest is famous for its winter gloom, and there's not much energy to be had from the sun that time of year. But as it turned out, Brandt was on to something. Whatcom County is a good place to go solar.
What winter lacks in sunlight is made up for in the summer, when clouds are usually scarce and the sun can shine 16 hours a day. What Washington needed to launch its solar industry was a way to squirrel away that summer bounty for the dark winter.
Enter "net metering." A state law passed in 1998 requires utilities to credit homeowners with solar (or other alternative energy) systems for any power they generate beyond what they use and that flows onto the grid. The excess power produced in the sunny summer comes back to the homeowner as a credit on their electric bill during the gray winter.
"It's really why solar works here," Brandt says. "There's no battery that can do that."
Josh Miller, general manager of solar operations at Western Solar in Bellingham, says his goal is for his clients to produce as much electricity in a year as they use. That wipes out the customer's electric bill - all but a base $7.49 monthly charge, according to Puget Sound Energy.
On top of that, owners of solar-powered homes typically get $1,000 cash from the state just for producing solar energy. The payback, from what PSE calls the Renewable Energy Advantage Program, can be as much as $5,000 a year.
A 20-panel solar system with equipment made in the state can be installed for about $22,000, Miller says. Combining net metering, REAP and certain tax breaks, such a system can pay for itself in five years.
Solar energy has grown at a rapid clip in the state - about 50 percent a year since 2008. Brandt says it should continue to grow over the next decade or so.
A big reason the future looks so bright for solar power here is the 270 solar arrays that already have appeared on Bellingham roofs, according to PSE's count.
"Every week more people learn solar works here because their friends and neighbors did it," Brandt says.
Net metering: Under a state law, utility customers receive a credit on their bills for the full retail cost of extra energy produced and delivered to the grid.
Federal income tax credit: Covers 30 percent of the total cost of the system, including installation (expires 2016).
No state sales tax: The tax exemption for solar equipment or installation expires 2018.
Renewable energy system cost recovery law: What Puget Sound Energy calls the Renewable Energy Advantage Program pays solar users 15 cents per kilowatt-hour, which increases to as much as 54 cents per kWh for solar panels and inverters made in Washington. (itek Energy of Bellingham makes both.) On average, the incentive is $1,000 a year. The maximum payment is $5,000 (expires 2020).
OTHER ENERGY-SAVING TIPS
Besides solar, there are a number of ways to reduce home energy costs, says the Community Energy Challenge, based in Bellingham:
-- Use energy-efficient light bulbs. CFLs are used as are LEDs, which are becoming popular because of their color quality and dimmability.
-- Seal heating ducts. That way, the ducts won't leak into unheated spaces in your home. "That's about the biggest bang for your buck," says Alex Ramel of Community Energy Challenge.
-- Air-seal or weatherize your home. That requires a trained professional, because improperly sealed homes can lead to unsafe levels of carbon monoxide or mold.
-- Insulate your home. People should start with the attic, because hot air rises. "If you only have $1,000 to spend, spend it on insulation in the attic," Ramel says.
-- Replace furnaces or water heaters. That's recommended if the original system is older and less efficient.
How do I get started?
To find a reputable solar contractor, call an energy advisor at Puget Sound Energy, 800-562-1482. Two established companies are based in Bellingham: Ecotech, 360-318-7646; and Western Solar, 360-746-0859.
For a broader assessment of how to reduce energy costs in your home (see "Energy-Saving Tips"), contact the Community Energy Challenge at 360-676-6099.
Is my home right for solar?
The ideal spot for solar panels is a south-facing roof. Panels can also be installed along a deck or free-standing in the yard, as long as the area gets no shade from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Panels can be mounted on east- or west-facing roofs, but the energy production drops 12 to 15 percent.
How many panels should I get?
The median size of an array attached to PSE's grid is 19 panels. Josh Miller of Western Solar says at least 10 panels give a significant return on investment. Beyond 38, the customer doesn't get the full state cash incentive for the energy produced, because the incentive is capped at $5,000.
How quickly does a solar system pay for itself?
For the typical system, five to seven years. Larger systems that produce more energy can see a full return on investment sooner.
Given that a solar system is expected to last much longer, homeowners come out ahead. For a proposed $31,000 system, Dana Brandt of Ecotech estimated the client would net $24,000 in 30 years.
Are solar grids hard to maintain?
Solar panels are virtually maintenance free, Miller says. They are generally more durable than the homes themselves, and can withstand winds up to 120 mph. Installers recommend hosing off the panels once or twice a year to remove debris. Panels come with a 25-year warranty, which includes a guarantee that the efficiency of the panel will be no worse than 80 percent after 25 years.