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Olympia Considering Community Solar

Solar panels considered for museum, City Hall

MATT BATCHELDOR; Staff writer 

OLYMPIA – Olympia’s new City Hall and under-construction Hands On Children’s Museum may get energy-saving solar panels.

The city is considering a proposal from Tangerine Power of Seattle to install the panels on the buildings at no cost to the city. The city would lease rooftop space to Tangerine for nine years for $1 per year, said Assistant City Manager Jay Burney. In turn, Tangerine would be responsible for installing and maintaining the systems, and get paid in state incentives.

“There’s no cost to the city,” Burney said. He expects to bring the topic to the Olympia City Council, which would make the final decision, in early September.

The city would pocket the savings on electricity bills, estimated at $12,000 to $18,000 per year for City Hall and $5,000 to $7,000 per year for the children’s museum. Tangerine, and its investors, would be paid by the state based on how much power the project generates, up to $1.08 per kilowatt hour. The state would get its money from Puget Sound Energy, which saves utility tax money on electricity it doesn’t have to generate.

At the end of the nine-year lease, the city could either sign a new lease or buy the panels from Tangerine at their depreciated cost. If Tangerine were to dissolve or default, ownership of the panels would go to the city, Burney said.

He said the city considered putting solar panels on the new City Hall but didn’t because of the expense.

Depending on how many panels are installed, the project could cost into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But with Tangerine bearing the expense, Burney called the project “kind of a no-brainer.”

The solar panels would be among the first community solar projects in the state, enabled by legislation passed in 2005 and amended in 2009 and 2010.

There are 16 completed community solar projects statewide, said Phil Lou, solar-energy specialist at the Washington State University Extension Energy Program. Among them is Olympia’s first such project, at the Olympia Farmers Market. There, a dozen market vendors and customers are investing in the panels, which were installed this year.

The biggest incentives for solar developers come from those installed on public buildings and using panels manufactured in the state, said Stanley Florek, CEO of Tangerine Power. His company, which started three years ago, is proposing to do just that, with panels manufactured in Snohomish County. He expects local people to invest in the project, which will pay them yearly. Investors could range from a few to hundreds, he said.

He said he couldn’t say exactly how much the rate of return is for regulatory reasons, but that it would exceed returns on CDs or corporate bonds.

Florek said his company decided to approach Olympia after being approached by local construction company Berschauer Phillips.

“My passion is about creating more local energy, and I think one of the best ways to do that is … for folks from the Thurston County community to be able to own some of these energy systems as they go up in the next few years,” he said.