Thursday, June 27, 2013

Large solar project in Downtown Bellingham highlights innovative landlord and neighborhood cooporation

When local property owner John Blethen built six live/work condos in downtown Bellingham six years ago, he knew that solar power was a smart choice for the neighborhood. He had the condos, which feature commercial space on the bottom floor and a living space for the proprietor on the top floor, built using the current best solar-ready construction practices in anticipation of the eventual installation of solar arrays on each of the six roofs. That meant positioning the angled roofs to capture the maximum solar potential and selecting a roofing material that made the mounting system really easy. The units were also wired for solar at the time they were built to drastically minimize the electrical work required at installation. The only missing piece of the puzzle was that actually installing the solar panels on the unoccupied condos didn’t quite make financial sense. Yet.

Fast forward to 2013: all of the live/work condos are occupied and solar installations have an attractively low payback period (think 5-7 years on equipment built to last decades). The commercial Creekside Building located next to the condos, which houses the Sustainable Connections offices and is also owned by Blethen, had recently implemented energy saving measures recommended after an energy assessment by the Community Energy Challenge. These included retrofitting the lighting and upgrading to an on-demand water heater and, having reduced the energy requirements in that older building, Blethen began to look once again at the possibility of installing solar on the six condos plus the Creekside Building and it turned out that this time the price was right.

Thanks to the solar-ready features already built into the condos, a robust package of financial incentives, a low interest loan from Banner Bank, and a deal for purchasing all of the materials in bulk from the local solar panel manufacturer Itek Energy, Mr. Blethen was able to make the case to all of the condo owners that now was the right time to go forward with the installation and every one of them said yes. Building the condos to be solar ready had attracted owners who shared John’s vision of eventually solarizing the development, and so when the financials made sense they were ready to jump at the opportunity. Since the project was essentially 7 installations all within the same block, Bellingham-based solar contractor Ecotech was able to bid the work as a package, yet another way in which utilizing the economies of scale from combining projects brought down the cost.

Work completed on the project mid-June 2013 and now there are 147 fully functional solar panels soaking up the summer sun on Ellis Street. Thanks to the arrays on the six condos and the Creekside Building, this one block is generating 32,860 kWh per year, enough to provide all of the electricity for three average homes, and is showing that solar power can be a smart investment for western Washington homes and businesses!

“I hope to use this project to show how neighbors can work together, how we can move away from fossil fuel, and how we can support local industry,” said John Blethen of the completed solar project.

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