When you think about the Pacific Northwest, sunshine is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. The ratio of gray skies to sunny days seems off kilter, with significantly fewer of the latter than most of us would like.
Because of that, many people dismiss solar energy as a plausible option for this area. “Emotionally, people feel that there’s
not enough sun here,” said Dana Brandt, president of Ecotech Energy Systems. “But it’s different when it comes to solar. The solar panel doesn’t care if it’s a sunny day, it just cares about the number of daylight hours we have. It’s not necessarily about how much sunshine we get.”
Brandt said our area gets 25 percent more sunlight than Germany, which currently has more than half of the world’s solar array installations. Most of the light is collected during our summer which is then converted into power for the home. “We get 4,380 daylight hours,” he said. “We just get most of our sun during the summer, when we’re not using a lot of electricity.”
Solar arrays, panels of light-sensitive material attached to residential or business roofs, collect the sun’s energy and converts it into DC electricity. An inverter then turns it into AC power (which powers our homes) before being routed into the utility grid.
Potentially generating in excess of your home’s daily energy use in the summertime, a solar meter tracks the amount of electricity generated and that number is used to calculate “net metering.”
The way net metering works is simple. When more solar electricity is generated than you need, the excess goes into the utility grid and turns your utility meter backward, saving you money on your electricity bill.
When you need more power than the array can generate, such as at night or during the winter, the utility grid will resume supplying your needs. You only pay for the net energy that you draw from the utility. “The state is paying for every kilowatt hour you generate, and you’re getting savings on your bill as well,” Brandt said.
“You’re generating clean energy,” he said. “And only using what you have to from the grid.”
Batteries can also be added to the system to store electricity generated during the day.
At current electricity prices, solar electricity is still slightly more expensive than electricity generated from fossil fuels or hydro-electric power. However, available incentives can make solar power financially accessible to most households. “It used to be really expensive,” Brandt said. Even five years ago, they could only promise a 30-year payback on the investment. But, with federal tax incentives it’s becoming more feasible.
“There’s a lot of great financial incentives out there right now,” Brandt said. “We’re seeing paybacks in five years and rates of return at 5 percent. People who looked at solar just five years ago would be surprised – the economics have changed so much.”
Washington state has passed some progressive solar legislation to provide homeowners and businesses an incentive to reduce their dependency on the grid. Under new legislation, producers of solar electricity receive direct payments for the electricity they generate. The federal government is also offering big incentives – a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the cost of the system.
“It’s a great time to look into solar energy,” Brandt said. “It’s local, too. You have local manufacturers, local installers and local sun. It’s a good investment.”