State solar incentive program still going strong

October 1, 2016

Two years in, I have reached a point, amazingly enough, where I consider my solar panels a routine part of my world. They quietly warm and accelerate their profusion of electrons, and I can go for days now without thinking of them at all.

But then something happens that, shall we say, jolts me out of my inattention. Recently it was the deposit of some $738.64 from Puget Sound Energy into my bank account, representing its annual solar production payout for the array on my roof. The money actually originates in a state of Washington fund to incentivize the adoption of renewable energy (including solar, wind, and even anaerobic digestion applications).

All the buzz over the last few months has been how dramatically an individual’s payout would be reduced this year, due to the fact that the amount in the overall fund remains constant, while the number of people participating in the renewable economy in the state is increasing substantially. But the cuts were less than anticipated: my own system, which is categorized as “solar manufactured out of state”, now pays at a rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour produced, down only a penny from the previous year. Other categories were comparable in their marginal reductions.

This is not to suggest that the future of such a fund is secure. A former mayor of Seattle, who had gone solar at approximately the same time that I did, recently decried the possibility of payout reductions from their original incentive rates as a kind of “bait-and-switch” deception of consumers. Indeed, it is commonplace to calculate a prospective solar customer’s ROI before the customer commits to the installation. Calculating incentives, tax breaks, and electricity produced, the installer can at least give you a ballpark estimate: your system will pay for itself in 15 years, say, or 10, or even 5! But if a major piece of the calculation is subject to change at each legislative session, that ROI becomes much less predictable.

We’ll see how it plays out. But in the meantime, all this got me to thinking more about the economics of going solar. Next post I will go through some of the interesting data that is now accumulating from two years’ worth of having a solar array.

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