Friday, December 18, 2009

Made in Washington

Starting this fall, residents and businesses will be able to buy the first made-in-Washington solar panels.
Arlington-based Silicon Energy LLC just received a key safety certification giving it the green light to put its products on the market. Thanks to generous state tax incentives for homegrown solar, Silicon Energy could be the first of several Washington-based solar companies helping boost the number of local solar-powered homes from the hundreds to the thousands.
“It means that all of a sudden, solar is no longer just the province of the Prius set,” said Mike Nelson, director of the Northwest Solar Center, part of Washington State University’s energy program. “This is solar for everybody.”
Solar power still represents a tiny fraction of the state’s energy portfolio. For example, Washington’s biggest solar installation, at Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse facility in Kittitas County, will pump out one-half of one megawatt when completed. The same plant’s wind turbines can generate up to 229 megawatts.
But Silicon Energy’s rollout is a key step in a long-standing state effort to spur a renewable energy industry. State lawmakers created a solar tax incentive in 2005, and expanded that incentive in this year’s legislative session.
One indication that business may be responding: Nelson said he is aware of at least four other groups developing business plans to try to follow in Silicon Energy’s footsteps.
Washington residents and businesses can now get payments of 15 cents for every kilowatt-hour of energy they generate. That rises to 18 cents with the use of a made-in-Washington inverter, a device that converts direct current into the alternating current that powers household appliances. But if they also use solar modules made in Washington state — which for now means Silicon Energy’s products — the incentive triples to 54 cents per kilowatt hour.
Based on the current usage pattern of Puget Sound Energy customers who use solar power, a homeowner using Silicon Energy’s products could cut monthly power bills in half on average and get a utility rebate of at least $1,050 each year.
When the 2005 law was passed, that incentive was capped at $2,000 per year and set to expire in 2014. But in this year’s legislative session, lawmakers raised the cap to $5,000 and extended the incentive to 2020.
When combined with a new, more generous federal incentive, a residential solar power system using Washington-made modules could pay for itself in roughly 10 years. Silicon Energy will sell to qualified contractors and installers rather than directly to homeowners, and the contractors will set the final price. But a typical residential system might sell for $20,000 to $30,000.
Silicon Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of Arlington-based inverter manufacturer OutBack Power Systems, had been working for some time to get a certification from Underwriters Laboratories Inc., a third-party safety testing organization. It cleared that key hurdle on July 16.
Gary Shaver, president and CEO of Silicon Energy, said his company is busy right now fulfilling contracts for utilities. It is making 300 panels for Puget Sound Energy’s Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility near Ellensburg in Kittitas County. Silicon Energy’s panels will add 50 kilowatts, which is about 16 to 25 times the capacity of an average home system.
Silicon Energy also already sold a system that now sits on the roof of Avista Corp.’s headquarters in Spokane. Dave Holmes, manager of applied research at Avista, a power company, said the system has performed well this summer with no problems.
“I think they’re going to be really busy producing panels here in Washington,” he said.
Silicon Energy’s rollout to the general public comes at a tough time in the solar power industry globally. Some large manufacturers in other countries ramped up rapidly to meet soaring demand, and the industry is now in the midst of a shakeout, with some products being unloaded at bargain-basement prices.
Silicon Energy’s Cascade Solar System has a couple of features that distinguish it from lower-cost panels. The modules are very strong, with glass stacked on glass, as opposed to the more typical plastic backing. The system has a much higher fire safety rating than a typical solar system. It is built without frames on the top or bottom, which prevents dirt and ice from accumulating and allows rain to wash the modules clean,
Even with the smaller tax incentive available to date, the number of solar energy users in Washington state has grown rapidly — though still a tiny minority. Seattle City Light, for example, has at least 150 customers using solar power, up from 47 in 2007.
The average solar customer is producing enough energy to account for half or more of the home’s energy usage, said a Puget Sound Energy spokesman.

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