Innovation, resiliency and breaking barriers: Northwest SEED and solar

By John David Baldwin on March 25, 2016

One of the most active and innovative nonprofits in the Pacific Northwest is CPN member Northwest SEED. This stands for Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development. The organization’s mission is to create “communities powered by locally controlled clean energy”. Northwest SEED (now Spark Northwest) combines environmental goals with a social justice agenda. So it is not surprising that Northwest SEED is also heavily involved in advocacy and policy. “Across the country, there’s a push to increase access to renewable energy,” said Camilla Walter, Northwest SEED’s Development Manager.
Northwest SEED is involved in quite a few projects. Two programs in particular demonstrate what the organization is about and where it is heading: Solarize Woodinville and ACE for All.

Solarize Woodinville is part of Northwest SEED’s Solarize Washington program. The first Solarize program began in one neighborhood in Portland, Oregon (“Solarize Southeast!”) in 2009. Northwest SEED then introduced a Solarize campaign in Seattle in 2011. Solarize Washington, which evolved out of that early effort, is a neighborhood-by-neighborhood campaign. It involves membership-based community groups that bring communities together to educate and streamline the process of going solar. Northwest SEED has helped bring about over 800 solar installations through this effort.

Solarize Woodinville is the first Solarize Washington project to incorporate resiliency. “We’re adding this new element to the original Solarize template,” Walter said.

Like the previous Solarize campaigns, Solarize Woodinville involves a community group purchase program. The community learns about solar, hires a contractor, and receives a discount. Northwest SEED had also received funding from the Sustainable Path Foundation, which was interested in resiliency.

Woodinville, located in the Cascade foothills, generally experiences more severe weather than does the lower-elevation Puget Sound area. Northwest SEED confirmed at the volunteer training that participants thought it would be important to add resiliency to the solar purchase effort to help them maintain power during outages.

Program participants are able to maintain power through the inverters installed in their solar system. The inverter provides enough power for one outlet while the sun still shines. This one live outlet would be sufficient to charge, say, a small lantern or a cell phone, which can come in very handy during a power emergency.

Communities in Washington that go solar can benefit from the state’s Renewable Energy Cost Recovery Program. This incentive offers a tiered rate payment system for solar power production, based on whether the installation equipment was manufactured in Washington State or elsewhere. The program provides a $0.15 per kWh rate for systems with out-of-state-manufactured panels and inverters, $0.36 per kWh for Washington-manufactured panels with out-of-state inverters and $0.54 per kWh for Washington-made panels and inverters.

The Request for Proposals (RFP) that the community must sign off on asks contractors to propose multiple systems, one of which will qualify for the made-in-Washington incentives, and one which will not. Participants will be able to choose between these systems according to what is most important to them. Jill Eikenhorst, project coordinator for NW SEED, indicated that the likeliest outcome would be that the contractor would propose a choice between a system that includes a Washington-manufactured Itek panel and inverter, and a system with an SMA Sunny Boy (out-of-state) inverter paired with an out-of-state module. The first would be more expensive but qualify for higher tax incentives, while the out-of-state system (with the secure power option) would be less expensive, but qualify for lower incentives.  Eikenhorst added: “By offering multiple systems (which we usually do in our Solarize campaigns), we will be able to better understand what matters to people, especially in the new incentive environment.”

Asked if there had been great interest in the Solarize program at the Woodinville Solarize Campaign Training and Kickoff meeting on January 28th, Eikenhorst answered that there were 23 people there with “a high level of enthusiasm,” and that this was the largest response she had seen so far. Part of the point was to teach people about solar and how it works, so she regarded as positive the fact that nobody at the meeting had previously been involved with solar.

“We were reaching a new community,” said Eikenhorst. “They were coming to this training because they were interested in seeing this happen. It’s great to get a wider cross section of the community.”

Northwest SEED calls its Solarize programs volunteers “solar ambassadors.” As ambassadors, the Solarize Woodinville volunteers can join one of two committees: the Outreach Committee or the Selection Committee. Outreach Committee members work to spread the word about the group. The Selection Committee reviews the RFP for the project that Northwest SEED will prepare for them, make changes, get the revised document back from NW SEED, and then select a contractor. More than half the people at the meeting, Eikenhorst reports, volunteered for one or the other committee. (Selection Committee members can perform outreach informally as well.)

“There are multiple factors involved in selecting the contractor, not just price,” Eikenhorst said. These factors include whether the contractor’s warranties and equipment are adequate, if the contractor will be able to handle the volume of customers, whether the contractor is a union shop or not and whether they have a diverse workforce, among others. NW SEED is using Woodinville as a pilot for its resiliency efforts. “It is up to the community to decide how this works. In future instances, it will be up to them to decide whether they want this.”

“Our goal is to get people interested in solar who would not be interested otherwise. The Solarize Guidebook is a good resource,” Eikenhorst said. “We will see a lot of innovations from businesses in terms of resiliency, and the strengthening of community ties and economies of communities through solar makes resiliency important, in order to make sure people have control over their power. In particular, battery technology is maturing and coming down in cost very quickly, and we are certainly paying close attention to the technological advances and developing market, and considering how they might fit into our mission and future programming.”

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The ACE for All program is a collaboration between government, foundations, utilities, developers and financing institutions. Northwest SEED is bringing these groups together to help low income families.

“Keeping our communities affordable, sustainable and resilient is more challenging than ever due to the explosive growth that is occurring in our region,” said Jennifer Grove, Northwest SEED Executive Director. “This new initiative aims to deliver the benefits of clean energy to the members of our community that are least equipped to cope with our changing climate.”

Project Manager Alexandra Sawyer considers this an “interesting moment” because of the political energy now being expended in providing various services to low-income people. “From the standpoint of working with low-income housing providers, it’s about figuring out their world and how solar power can fit in that world,” said Sawyer. “When they build new buildings and rehab existing buildings, we want to make it financially viable for them to include solar.” NW SEED also wants to figure out a way for housing providers to install solar on their properties so that it is directly benefiting tenants, not just the providers themselves.

“With virtual net metering, we want the housing providers to be able to ask that some credits go to each individual unit, not just to them.” Sawyer said. “There are promising incentivizing models for this concept in other states, like California.” Camilla Walters noted, “I think the biggest challenge is passing the benefits [of solar power] on to the tenants, rather than the housing stock owners. That’s going to be a challenge because it hasn’t been done before [in Washington].”

Sawyer, like Eikenhorst, regards the Washington State Cost Recovery Incentive as significant. Northwest SEED is seeking to accomplish two things:

  • Create a strong coalition to make the incentive program more predictable by raising the current utility cap (due to expire in July of this year) and then stabilizing the program, originally due to sunset in 2020, over a ten-year period; and
  • After all solar owners have been served by the above reform, concentrate future policy sessions on serving low-income people specifically. All this, Sawyer says, will be a multi-year process.

There are a number of barriers in the existing system that the ACE for All program is attempting to overcome. For example, the nonprofit housing partners NW SEED works with are unable to take advantage of tax credits when they go solar. Similarly, the return low-income people receive from the net metering piece is less valuable because they already receive lower-cost energy from other low-income programs.

“We’re trying to get a good sense of where those barriers are and how we can craft a program to address those barriers,”  Sawyer said. “We are listening and learning to figure out how solar can fit into the existing housing landscape with minimal hardship in financing and planning for those organizations that are making housing available to low-income people.”

NW SEED is also providing a boost to the local solar industry.

“The solar job market has grown dramatically in Seattle in the past several years. Installers that had four or five employees now have 20 employees,” Sawyer said. “We want to expand the market in solar. Part of doing this involves expanding the number of properties that can install solar. We do see solar as a very important tool in making communities more resilient to climate change. We also want to incorporate battery storage with those solar installations. We want to prioritize this to provide the most secure power investment.”

NW SEED hopes to have at least one ACE for All program up and running by the end of the year. The organization’s work to date has already provided it with some key insights.

“It’s becoming very clear that it will be important to have diverse voices as part of the clean energy conversation,” Sawyer said. ACE for All will help increase this diversity by expanding the range of people that can benefit from solar.

To learn more about NW SEED, please visit their website: