Couple turn Pemco on to potential for solar energy, even in cloudy Seattle
A Seattle couple not only have put solar panels on their roof and set up a nonprofit, Solar Pie, to provide information about solar energy, but they convinced Pemco to go solar as well. On Sept. 2, information about Pemco's solar savings will be on its sign near the freeway.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Solar Pie is a nonprofit designed to be the go-to place for information about solar energy. It provides links to all kinds of related sites and a blog on the topic at www.solarpie.org
As summer days sizzle in Seattle, the electric meter at one Capitol Hill home runs backward.
OK, so it's an atypical sunny summer, but what's happening inside the glass-covered meter at Carolyn and Scott Sherwood's big yellow home isn't a fluke. It's their green solution: making energy from solar panels. So on sunny days, rather than owing Seattle City Light money, the utility is paying them 13 cents per kilowatt hour to generate power.
What began a few years ago with the purchase of one toy solar panel and Scott's "Gee, it really works!" surprise has turned into a nonprofit called Solar Pie, an endeavor started earlier this year to spread the news that the sun is the cleanest form of energy around.
The Sherwoods designed Solar Pie to be the go-to place for information about solar energy. Want the latest news about products? Legislation? What other countries are doing to create solar energy? There are links on the Solar Pie Web site. Plus there's Carolyn's blog.
The Sherwoods are so into solar they persuaded Pemco, the Seattle insurance company, to put 36 solar panels on its roof. Starting Sept. 2, Pemco's sign facing Interstate 5 near the Denny exit in Seattle will note the carbon saved and kilowatt hours created in addition to the time and temperature.
Pemco wasn't planning on going solar until the Sherwoods approached the company. And even though the panels contribute to only a small portion of Pemco's total energy needs, company officials say they are proud to help lead the way in the green-energy movement.
The Sherwoods stunned Pemco when they went to the company last fall and told them Solar Pie, financed by the Sherwoods' 401(k)s, would pay for the solar panels because they wanted a visible Seattle business to take a stand on solar energy. In the end, Pemco bought the roof, which cost $100,000.
"Pemco isn't on the bleeding edge of the green movement, but we want to do our part," said spokesman Jon Osterberg. "We're a solid, conservatively run insurance company not normally known as an innovator ... . This project demonstrates that everyone can play a role in being ecologically aware ... . We hope it overcomes misperceptions that cloudy places like Seattle can't generate sufficient solar energy."
At Seattle City Light, there are 150 residential and 16 business customers signed on as solar-energy users, which means that part of the year the panels on their rooftops generate electricity. In various programs the utility pays each customer up to 18 cents for every kilowatt hour generated beyond what the customer uses. A 2005 incentive created by the Legislature set the payback at 54 cents per kwh if customers use a solar-energy inverter and panels manufactured in Washington. City Light charges customers only a little more than 6 cents a kwh, so the reimbursement "is significantly higher than the cost of the energy we're delivering to their house," said spokesman Scott Thompson.
A single-family home that uses about 1,000 kwh a month can generate not only its own energy during those spring and summer days with lots of light, but sell the excess to City Light.
How much energy generated depends on the size of the solar-energy system, where it's placed and how efficient it is, Thompson said. If a homeowner has a Washington-made system as large as Sherwood's 18-panel one, the compensation could average $2,148 annually, he said, and result in a utility bill of about $43 a month.
Additionally, solar panels — which may cost about $29,000 for a house — are eligible for a federal tax credit of about 30 percent of the total cost. Over the long run, the investment will pay off, the Sherwoods say.
"We truly take our role as stewards of the Earth seriously," said Carolyn, 53.
While the number of people using solar energy is currently small, Jack Brautigam, renewable-energy manager for City Light, says he believes solar energy eventually will be used more widely here. There is a 400-acre solar-energy park, the Teanaway Solar Reserve, in the planning stages in Kittitas County, "but we're a few years out before solar energy really catches on."
Even so, he said, he can't imagine Washington competing with the Southwest as a solar-energy area.
That's where the Sherwoods disagree.
While hot days generate lots of energy, the optimal temperature is 77 degrees, they say. Extremes can make generating power more difficult. Cloudy weather doesn't stop power generation.
For the Sherwoods, most of their day is spent talking up solar. A few years ago, they were newbies with lots of questions: Carolyn wondered if using even partial solar power would mean funky kitchen appliances that worked only when the sun was out. Or refrigeration that kept things tepid. Or dim lights.
No, no and no, she learned. And the first time all the appliances were humming, the lights glowing and pots on the stove bubbling, she was pleased.
Up in the attic attached to a wall is the inverter, a box that measures the amount of carbon saved, the kilowatt hours generated and used. It covers about 38 percent of their 3,800-square-foot home's year-round energy use, she said.
In the summer, they generate power for City Light. During the winter, the solar panels generate energy to reduce the Sherwoods' bill; they still have to buy power to make up the difference.
Other homes might have a higher level of solar efficiency, depending on how much access to the sun they have. The Sherwoods' system faces southeast; true south, as with the Pemco building, is the ideal.
But the first time Carolyn saw the dial run backward on the electric meter was "an a-ha moment."
"That's what I want for people. That's when they realize solar energy works," she said.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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