Solar power to fuel brain power

Financial incentives will go to scholarship endowments for the three colleges and Wa-Hi.

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WALLA WALLA — A new community solar project in the works is designed as a spark plug for scholarship endowments, creators say.

Walla Walla Community Solar will be the first known public/private solar project in the state created as a vessel for charity, said Frederic Liebrand, a Walla Walla University physics professor and a creator of Walla Walla-Free, the nonprofit organization that will act as the agent to investors in the project.

The project kicks off with the installation of 22 solar panels on top of the Walla Walla Regional Airport terminal building. Eventually the terminal could hold as many as 375 panels. Liebrand said the first wave of panels could be up and operable within a couple of weeks.

During a gathering last week that fell between the ceremonial groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting phases in the project’s development, he lauded elected officials who have helped pave the way for the project, particularly Reps. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place; Terry Nealey, R-Dayton; and Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

Operators have partnered with the Port of Walla Walla for use on top of the terminal building. Installation of the electrical solar system on the roof will accommodate a 75-kilowatt system. The Port will benefit from the use of the electrical power for a cost savings of around $7,000 per year in electrical costs.

Such community solar projects are considered “government-designed” private initiatives defined in the Revised Code of Washington. Individuals can pool resources to purchase and install the system on property owned by a cooperating local government entity that is not in the light and power business. Pooling resources allows economies of scale, according to Liebrand’s report. The location on public property ensures the proceeds benefit the community, he said.

Since the state approved incentives for such projects a couple of years ago, at least 100 such projects have launched throughout the state. Most of them are in Western Washington, he said. What makes Walla Walla’s different is the focus on donating the financial incentives to scholarship endowments for the community’s three colleges and for Walla Walla High School. With a full subscription Liebrand estimates the solar project could generate over $250,000 per year for scholarships.

Liebrand said investors in the panels and equipment receive $1.08 per kilowatt hour produced up to $5,000 a year from the state. A federal tax credit is also available with the purchase of a complete system. The state incentive to support renewable energy is set to end 2020 unless legislators renew it.

Liebrand declined to name the private investors in the project thus far. The terminal building is one of two in the works in the community. The second is still in the approval stage but is slated for the wastewater treatment plant.

Both community solar projects would be served by different utilities. The terminal flat-roof project by Columbia Rural Electric Association, and the wastewater treatment version by Pacific Power.

Representatives from both utilities as well as from Whitman College, Walla Walla Community College and Walla Walla University

Liebrand said work on the project has been nearly all local. Murar Engineering designed a racking system that was manufactured by Integrity Metal Fab for the panels. Burkhart & Burkhart, PLC has provided pro bono legal counsel. Electrical work and installation came through Walla Walla Electric. Ketelsen Construction provided additional contracting and design. The panels are manufactured in Washington by Silicon Energy. That’s the only part that’s not local, Liebrand said.

“This truly is a Walla Walla project,” he said.

Participants own the equipment purchased and can donate incentives. Walla Walla-Free buys and installs equipment, maintains it, tracks production, submits paperwork to the state and utilities and receives the production incentives that are passed back either to the participants or directly to the colleges, public schools and government agencies set to receive them.

The structure is somewhat complicated, but the bottom line is simple: “We’re trying to do the most good we can with the best benefits,” Liebrand said.

A website with more details will launch after the final electrical inspection, expected in a couple of weeks, he said.

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