August 21, 2008

Interview of the Week: Solar America City, Seattle

Seattle, one of my favorite cities where heavy coffee consumption is blatantly encouraged, became a Solar America City in 2008. Despite the clean energy commitments of Mayor Greg Nickels’ Climate Initiative, the Department of Planning and Development’s Green Building Program, and Washington State’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and Renewable Energy Production Incentive Program, Seattle, also known…

Seattle, one of my favorite cities where heavy coffee consumption is blatantly encouraged, became a Solar America City in 2008. Despite the clean energy commitments of Mayor Greg Nickels’ Climate Initiative, the Department of Planning and Development’s Green Building Program, and Washington State’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and Renewable Energy Production Incentive Program, Seattle, also known as the Emerald City, faces unique and substantial barriers to widespread deployment of solar energy technologies..

Meg Gluckman is the Solar Cities coordinator for the City of Seattle and is responsible for developing the Solar Strategic Plan for Seattle City Light (SCL), Seattle’s municipal electric utility. She brings to SCL her experience designing and installing solar in the U.S. and in Central America, as well as work with various renewable energy nonprofits and consultant companies. Meg, who has a BS in Environmental Engineering, is currently pursuing a Masters of Business Administration at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute.

In her usual cheerful and optimistic way, Meg took time from her heavy schedule to talk about the City’s entry into the Solar America Cities family, and what’s on the agenda for solar in Seattle. Here’s our conversation:

IREC: Meg, when I think of Seattle, I think of rain and overcast skies. Seattle’s other name, besides “The Emerald City,” is the “Rainy City.” How can Seattle’s climate help make it a solar community?

MG: That’s one of our unique barriers; people think that because we’re in the Pacific Northwest, we experience rain all the time. Actually, we get less rain than New York City, Atlanta, and Houston. We like to remind everyone that you don’t have to live in a desert to use solar energy. Solar does very well in cooler climates. If solar works in Germany, it can work here too.

IREC: Seattle and Germany have similar environments?

MG: Surprisingly, Seattle gets as much sun as Germany, one the world’s leaders in installed solar PV.

IREC: Besides the fact that Seattle is one of the more progressive cities in the U.S., with Mayor Greg Nickels and his Climate Protection Agreement, was it just a matter of time and another round of DOE funding that gave Seattle the opportunity to apply to become a Solar America City?

MG: In 2007, Robert Balzar joined SCL as the Director of the Conservation Resources Division, bringing with him a long history of supporting solar energy programs. The local non-profit organization Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (NWSEED) approached City Light with the idea of applying for the Solar Cities Initiative, and he jumped at the opportunity.

In Seattle, we have a population that’s very concerned about climate change and sustainability. With our state renewable portfolio standard and our renewable energy production incentive, the time was ripe for this kind of initiative. We have over 10,000 customers who participate in SCL’s green programs and over 100 solar PV installations. At City Light, we’re hearing from more and more customers, residential and commercial, who are interested in installing solar. We’re also hearing about the types of financial and technical barriers that they face.

IREC: Who, besides SCL, are the partners in this initiative, and what will they be doing?

MG: The two main leads are Seattle City Light (SCL) and Northwest SEED. As the project host and coordinator, we’re incorporating solar into our Five-Year Energy Efficiency Action Plan, improving interconnection processes, evaluating possible financial incentives and creating new programs (i.e., Community solar).

NWSEED has experience assisting communities with renewable energy projects. They’re managing the project, leading research into how we can make a community solar model work here, and will be conducting widespread outreach and education.

Other partners include the City of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, which is taking the lead on incorporating solar into city planning efforts. They’re responsible for implementing the City’s building code for all new construction. They also help neighborhoods with their planning, asking questions like, “what’s the future for this neighborhood?”

The Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, will offer technical assistance and project replication with other municipalities.

And our friends at the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) will handle school curriculum development and demonstration system installations. Of Seattle City Light’s 24 solar demonstration projects, nine of them are at schools. BEF will develop curriculum for the schools we target for this initiative.

IREC: Good group. Have you set goals for the number of installations or for the amount of MW installed?

MG: We’re not using the number of installations or total megawatts installed as our metrics. We’re working on five specific initiatives, all of which we believe will lead to more installed solar.

IREC: And those initiatives are?

MG: Sure. Let me run through them.

First, we want to make sure that the City’s plans for the future include solar energy. We’ll be incorporating solar into City Light’s Conservation Resource Division’s Five-Year Energy Action Plan and through the Department of Planning and Development’s Green Building Program will identify and remove barriers to solar in land use and building codes.

Second, we will be tackling the economic barriers to solar energy use. This will include developing tools for consumers to understand and evaluate available incentives, as well as researching and developing community-scale (shared-investment) solar opportunities for City Light customers.

Third, we will improve interconnection access. We’ve already made progress on this by working with local solar vendors to improve our interconnection process.

Fourth, we’ll be redoubling our education and outreach efforts. This will include “Solar Works in Seattle” workshops throughout the community, as well as workshops for City personnel, expansion of the Solar for Our Schools program, and greater participation in events like the National Tour of Solar Homes.

Finally, during the later part of our two-year program we intend to put everything into practice where solar makes the most sense for the City. We’ll be targeting outreach to sites with the best opportunities for cost-effective solar, based on mapping and an understanding of building function and energy use.

IREC: Whew. That’s some ‘to do’ list. So even though the initiative just started earlier this Spring, how are you feeling so far about the initiative? Are you satisfied overall with the progress?

MG: I’d say definitely. We were awarded our grant in April of this year, and had our initial kick-off meeting in May. We have a two-year work plan in place, and things are moving at a rapid pace. We’ve already developed new informational materials for our customers, like the ‘Solar Works in Seattle’ brochure. We’ve got our Solar Homes Tour in October, and we’ve got “Solar 101” and Solar Hot Water consumer-oriented workshops scheduled for November and January.

Internally, we’ve got some workshops to get our staff up-to-speed. We’re also in the process of redesigning our website, and we continue to research potential solar financial incentives and community solar initiatives. We’ve already made significant improvement in our interconnection process by creating a streamlined application and fast-tracking the approval process for small scale PV projects.

IREC: So even though Seattle enjoys a reputation as an energy-aware city, what challenges have gotten in the way of your goals?

MG: Low energy cost is both an advantage and a challenge. Here in Seattle, we’ve got a large hydro resource which benefits our customers with cheap electricity (six or seven cents/kilowatt-hour retail rate), which makes solar hard to justify. The utility’s job is to spend the ratepayer’s money in the most cost-effective manner. The cost of conservation vs. solar is huge, and if we can save twice as much by spending a dollar on conservation than solar, that also makes it hard to justify solar.

IREC: I agree with you that conservation represents an enormous resource, and complements solar beautifully. But SCL is a municipal utility, which means the ratepayers own the utility. Have you asked them how they feel about solar?

MG: We’ve got a huge market research project that we’ll do around the community solar issue. The programs we offer now, our green power programs, are either state or city mandates.

IREC: What surprises have you seen with the new Solar America City Initiative?

MG: I think the biggest surprise for me is the enormous enthusiasm for it throughout SCL, in all divisions of the utility. It feels as though everyone is talking about solar. It’s a wonderful challenge, and I’m excited to be part of it.

You can contact Meg via email or by phone at 206-684-4827 for more information about Seattle’s Solar America Initiative.