Washington’s Solar Landscape

Homeowners and businesses across Washington State are increasingly turning to solar energy for a variety of reasons – to achieve energy independence, diversify their sources of electricity, reduce climate impacts, or invest in local production.  In 2012, Washington ranked 23rd in the country with approximately 4,000 PV installations comprising over 19 megawatts of distributed solar photovoltaic generation. This represents a growing market, with 34% growth in 2012 alone.

The Washington State legislature has passed critical laws to support distributed generation, including the net metering law (RCW 80.60) and the renewable energy system cost recovery incentive (the “Production Incentive” RCW 82.16.110). However, the structure of these laws favors residential and small commercial installations, leading residential-scale solar to account for more than 90% of Washington’s installed capacity. As such, we have a long way to go towards realizing our technical rooftop solar potential – estimated at 13 gigawatts by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. While we do not anticipate that every viable roof will host a solar system, our technical potential illustrates that solar in Washington is not limited by resource availability, but rather by solvable issues such as awareness, economics, and incentive structure.

Moreover, Washington is blessed with abundant hydropower, and as a result has some of the lowest electricity rates in the country. Western Washington, the more populous part of the state, also has a seasonally low solar resource. These factors combine to make solar energy less competitive than in other markets, and make Washington the last region in the U.S. expected to achieve grid parity (the point where unsubsidized solar electricity is cost-competitive with grid electricity).

Action Areas

Reducing the soft costs associated with installing solar is essential in helping to achieve our solar potential. Although considerable progress has been made in some areas, the regional market is still challenged by an assortment of permitting processes across jurisdictions, cumbersome interconnection procedures, and inconsistent zoning and financing resources.

Permitting: Inconsistent permitting processes pose a challenge to efficient, cost effective solar installations. While Washington has a statewide expedited solar permitting process defined in theory, approaches to permitting vary widely in practice. Since 80% of Washington utility customers are served by customer owned utilities (COUs) that are not regulated at the state level, the implementation of the statewide permitting process in highly uneven.

Interconnection: Washington’s interconnection standards are established by the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC), which represents the Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) that serve approximately 20% of Washington utility customers. However, although COUs are not regulated by the UTC, they have a record of adopting UTC guidelines and consequently participate in the regulatory process. Washington’s “D” grade for interconnection in the Network for New Energy Choices’ Freeing the Grid 2010 report indicates that there is ample room for improvement of interconnection standards.

Solar Planning: Washington State law allows entities to enter into private easements to protect future solar access, but does not require that easements be put in place and does not guarantee a right to solar access. State law prohibits Homeowner Associations from precluding the installation of solar electric systems but allows them to issue aesthetic guidelines, which in effect can prohibit solar installations.

Navigating the patchwork of permitting, zoning, and interconnection procedures across the state leads to higher overhead costs for solar installers and confusion among potential solar customers.  The objective of Northwest Solar Communities is to reduce these and other “soft costs” associated with installing rooftop solar electricity and to ultimately accelerate Washington’s ability to reach its solar potential.