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Solar in Washington continues to grow at a rapid pace, despite cheap energy prices and the relative lack of sun west of the Cascades.
The truth is that solar works in Washington State. Long summer days, cool climate, a statewide net metering program, and generous state production incentives have spurred a strong local solar industry. I believe 2013 marked a maturing solar market for Washington, with a lot of work still left to do.
Washington has much to be proud of over the past twelve months. We are home to two PV module manufacturers, both of which saw increased production as a result of our “Made in Washington” production incentive program. Itek Energy has more than doubled its production capacity since 2012, increasing module efficiency by over 8 percent and reducing prices by approximately 25 percent. Silicon Energy has continued its expansion in to other states while building its reputation as a highly-durable module with BIPV capabilities.
On the installation side, local contractors have been growing at an annual rate of about 25 percent to 30 percent across the board, including employee count, annual revenues, number of projects and installed generating capacity. This data comes from a newly formed trade association, Solar Installers of Washington (SIW), which launched in October when installers set aside their competitive impulses to work together and help shape the future of solar energy in Washington, particularly in regards to public policy and legislation.
Many non-profit organizations have recently become more involved in solar energy in Washington as well. Perhaps most notable is Northwest SEED, which has organized several “Solarize” campaigns in neighborhoods across the Puget Sound region. NW SEED also managed the Evergreen State Solar Partnership, which received funding through the DOE’s Sun Shot Initiative to reduce the soft costs of going solar. Another round of funding was recently awarded to the WA State Dept. of Commerce for the Rooftop Solar Challenge II, which will also be managed by NW SEED. One member of this team is Solar Washington, a non-profit aimed at advancing solar energy in Washington State. Solar Washington recently hired a paid coordinator to carry out most of its day-to-day operations and intends to maintain a strong presence in the Washington solar space.
The past twelve months have been interesting, to say the least, when it comes to solar policy in Washington. Earlier in the year, HB 1301 was introduced as a way to bolster and extend the state’s existing production-incentive program, which is set to expire in 2020 and may reach its cap in allowed payments before then. Unfortunately, the bill died in the Republican-controlled Senate after becoming too complicated and not earning enough support.
Representative Jeff Morris intends to pick up where things left off with 1301 when the new session begins in January. He is being urged by industry professionals to keep the bill as simple as possible.
An unexpected win for the solar industry came when a sales-tax exemption was extended in a budget deal in the final minutes of the legislative session. “The Great Sales Tax Exemption Rush of 2013” had customers and installers scrambling to get systems installed and inspected before the June 30 deadline, only to find out on June 29 that it would be extended for another five years.
More recently, a proposal was adopted by the Washington State Building Code Council that amends the 2012 International Fire Code (IFC) and permits solar panels to cover more roof space than previously allowed. The proposal was submitted by a Solar PV Technical Advisory Group (TAG) made up of fire officials, solar professionals, building & electrical code officials, and a solar homeowner.
Finally, the State is considering how it might integrate third-party owned (TPO) and leased solar systems. The WA Utility and Transportation Commission (UTC) is looking at new language that could allow TPO systems to receive net-metering benefits while avoiding utility regulations. And, after a round of heated public testimony, lawmakers are considering new rules that may open up state production incentives to leased systems. Look for leasing to continue to be a hot topic in 2014.
Washington State carries a lot of momentum going in to 2014. With the current production incentive program intact and Washington residents gaining awareness about the benefits of solar, I expect continued growth in the 25-30% range. However, the future of solar in Washington is uncertain, and unless we see favorable policy changes by 2015, we could see the collapse of an industry that has worked from the ground up since 2001. Of course, much also depends on the federal tax credit, and Washington will certainly be keeping a close eye on it as we approach its targeted expiration date of 2016. For now, expect the leaders of Washington’s solar environment to continue doing everything they can to make solar easier and more affordable for people and businesses to embrace solar energy as a clean and smart alternative to traditional energy sources.