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Ellensburg WA's Community Solar Array

Credits: ©2011 City of Ellensburg

Driving west along Interstate 90 through Eastern Washington, a large solar array is visible on the north side of the highway, in rural farmland. But this approximately 300 kilowatt array is a community solar power project owned by the nearby City of Ellensburg. Ellensburg’s Solar Community program is a unique arrangement that allows local ratepayers to provide financial support in exchange for compensation for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by the project - in a form of a credit on their utility bill - for a period of 20+ years. Originally conceived in 2003 by the City of Ellensburg, Washington State University Energy Extension, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Ellensburg Solar Community Project was a groundbreaking endeavor that may have been the first community solar project in the United States. Project organizers designed a model that would increase the demand for solar energy by allowing community members to participate directly, and after several years of program design, community organizing, and fundraising, the city’s system began generating power in November of 2006. It has since produced more than 170,000 kilowatt-hours, averaging 58,000 kilowatt-hours, annually. The solar project is highly visible to the community, located on the west end of a popular community park and just yards off one of Washington’s busiest highways that sees an average of 18,000 travelers passing by per day. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)


Ellensburg WA Solar Panels

Along Interstate 90 in Eastern Washington State lies a 58 kilowatt solar array operated by the City of Ellensburg. ©2010 Robin Rogers

System Details
Phase 1 – 36kW
Phase I of the project, composed of 120, 300-watt polycrystalline solar modules came on-line in November 2006. Seventy-three members signed up to participate at that time. In addition to receiving contributions from these investors, Ellensburg utilized a grant from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and funds from the Bonneville Power Administration’s Conservation Rate Credit (CRC) program.

Phase 2 – 21.6kW
The City of Ellensburg completed the second phase in February of 2009, adding more than 20-kW to the project. Central Washington University contributed most of the funding for this second phase, using grant money received from the State of Washington’s Office of Financial Management. The City of Ellensburg also utilized funds from BPA’s Conservation Rate Credit (CRC) program. Central Washington University will receive credit for the power produced by Phase 2 of the system.

Phase 3 – 24kW (proposed as of April 2011)

Due to the ongoing popularity of the Community Solar program, the City of Ellensburg is planning to offer a third expansion of up to 24-kW to local community members (individual and business ratepayers). The City is leading the member solicitation process, currently (summer of 2009), and has already raised $124,000 for this next Phase at the time of this writing. Ellensburg anticipates using thin-film solar technology for Phase 3, to compare its performance to that of the polycrystalline modules installed in the first two project phases. Over the next three years, the City hopes to expand the project to 165-kW.

Total System Size
-  Twenty-four RWE Schott ASE 300-watt/50 volts DG50 solar modules

-  One 6000-watt Sunny Boy inverter

Financing & Ownership
Ellensburg’s Solar Community program allows local individuals and businesses to participate directly in the solar-electric project. Local residential and commercial utility customers were asked to partner with the City to help fund the project. In exchange for their financial support, the members receive compensation for each kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by the project (in a form of a credit on their utility bill) for a period of 20+ years. To calculate member reimbursement, Ellensburg values the power at BPA’s wholesale rate.

Though the City of Ellensburg owns the project, the contributing members may at any time sell, assign, or donate their “shares” (the rights to the value of the power) to any other individual or commercial utility customer. The members also own the rights to the environmental attributes (RECs) produced by the system.

Because the City of Ellensburg, a public utility, technically owns the project, the project did not qualify to receive either Washington State’s Production Incentive (SB 5101) payments or the Federal Tax Credit. However, Washington State SB 6170, which passed in May of 2009, allows for individual members of a community solar project to qualify for the state production incentive program, based on the portion of their participation in the project. As of the writing of this guide the rules have not been codified, but it appears that participants of Ellensburg’s project will be eligible to receive an annual production payment of $.30 per kilowatt-hour generated, up to a maximum of $5,000 per year per member, extending through year 2020. For more information on the Washington State Renewable Energy Production Incentive, please see the Financing page, or visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency at www.dsireusa.org.

Participating members receive on-bill crediting quarterly. The utility uses the following formula to calculate the credit:

# of kilowatt-hours produced x investment level* x BPA wholesale rate = $ credit
*The investment level is the individual contribution amount divided by the total investment pool ($103,000)

Because the number of project members is relatively small, the City of Ellensburg’s Energy Services maintains a simple spreadsheet that tracks each contributor, investment amount, and kilowatt-hours produced by the system. Ellensburg’s billing department then applies the credit manually to each customer’s bill on a quarterly basis. The credit appears as a dollar amount titled “Solar Credit.”

Ellensburg’s on-bill crediting has been described as “virtual net metering.” Under the traditional net metering scenario, a utility applies the value of any excess power produced by an owner’s solar system to that owner’s utility bill at the retail rate. To mimic true net metering, therefore, a project would have to reimburse the members at the retail rate of power. Ultimately, an Ellensburg member may receive a financial return similar to or better than that of a net-metered system because the share price is subsidized by others’ donations. Nonetheless, the term “virtual net metering” does not exactly apply in this instance.

Marketing, Education & Outreach
To launch the project, City of Ellensburg Resource Management staff created a single-page overview sheet along with a marketing brochure that included a Community Solar Contribution Pledge form. A minimum initial contribution by each customer was set at $250 to ensure administrative costs were covered. Once the initial contribution has been made, contributors can increase their contribution at any time and for any amount through 2010. The utility allows the customer to contribute towards the project, up to the point that their annual solar credit zeros out their electric bill. Ellensburg accepts contributions via check, credit card, payroll deduction, and directed contributions.

In addition to distributing marketing materials, Resource Management staff delivered several lunch and evening presentations at the City Hall. Staff also spoke at many of the community’s local clubs and organizations. Regional TV and radio stations conducted interviews about the project, and community and college newspapers wrote feature stories. A large display with a digitized picture showing how the solar system would look on the site was set up in the main lobby at City Hall, accompanied by informational materials and pledge forms for customers to fill out.

Strong local support from the Utility Director, the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce, the City Manager, and City Council was vital to the success of the Ellensburg’s project. The project received unanimous approval by the council, and three of the council members even contributed money towards the project. Some of the other key financial and technical supporters of the project included the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF), the Northwest Solar Center, the State Department of Ecology and Central Washington University (CWU) in Ellensburg.

Educational Opportunities
The Ellensburg project organizers achieved their primary goal of enabling ratepayers to participate directly in a local solar project. The educational outcomes of the project have been equally successful, and underscore the true “community” nature of the Ellensburg project. CWU is closely allied with the project, and University students participate in myriad ways. For instance, a CWU engineering student designed the adjustable racking system to hold the solar modules. CWU's Civic Engagement Center provided senior marketing students to design the project logo and marketing materials, and an IT student developed a project web page.

As part of its commitment to the project, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation delivered renewable energy education to all K-12 schools in Ellensburg. Each school received renewable energy curriculum, a science kit, and a full day solar training session. BEF also created for each school a series of web pages that allow the students to view and download the live and historical data from the Ellensburg project, to complement the donated renewable energy curriculum. Finally, all participating K-12 teachers received continuing education credits from CWU. Ellensburg High School in Ellensburg, WA joined the Solar 4R Schools program in October 2008. Teachers at the school received Solar 4R Schools Renewable Classroom materials - including activity guides and science kits - as part of the Ellensburg Community Project. Solar4R Schools – Online Power Output and Weather Tracker


  Ellensburg WA Community Solar Executive Summary (93 kb)

  Ellensburg WA Renewable Energy Park Site Map April 2011 (38 kb)

  Ellensburg WA Community Solar Array Installed Costs 2010 (301 kb)

  Ellensburg Community Solar Project (Washington State, USA) (822 kb)