Whatcom Campaign Accelerates Solar Growth

by Meghan Fenwick

Once word gets around, solar panels spread like sunshine: homeowners are 89 percent more likely to go solar if their neighbors have already taken the leap.

The solar industry has grown exponentially, enabled by political, cultural and economic shifts. In the past decade, the price of solar in the United States has decreased by 40 percent — 47 percent in Washington. About a third of Washington’s 680 megawatts of solar was installed in 2022. Many municipalities, including Bellingham and Whatcom County, have climate-action plans with a focus on renewable energies, aiming to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Graph of Solar Production at Cruise Terminal

courtesy data: SolarEdge
The above chart displays amount of solar production from the Port of Bellingham’s cruise terminal each month of 2023. Overall production amounted to 147.09 MWh in 2023,mirroring totals in 2022 and more than doubling 2021 totals.
SolarEdge: https://monitoringpublic.solaredge.com/solaredge-web/p/site/public?name=Port%20of%20Bellingham%20community%20access#/dashboard

Still, only 1 percent of Whatcom County homes — about 1,000 — have joined the solar movement. Although government agencies and utility companies offer a variety of incentives, rebates and credits towards solar projects, many barriers persist. Owning property is chief among them; about half of Whatcom County residents own their homes.

A 9-kilowatt solar system, the median size for Washington homes, costs roughly $24,570 before rebates as of November 2023. The payback period can be between 13 and 19 years on average.

If a homeowner is able to afford the investment, the stars still may not align. The condition, lifespan, angle and direction of a roof may hinder your cost-benefit analysis. Homeowners must make many decisions about their financial, lifestyle and energy needs before pulling the trigger.

“Seven out of 10 people in Washington cannot put solar on their roofs for one reason or another,” said Ben Silesky, program director of Olympia Community Solar. “If we truly are trying to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2035 or 2040, that’s going to come up soon, and that’s going to leave out a lot of people.”

Olympia Community Solar (OCS) (1) is a nonprofit organization that seeks to mitigate solar barriers and foster an equitable energy transition. This summer, OCS is partnering with Sustainable Connections (2) on Solarize Whatcom, a group-purchasing model with negotiated discounts on solar installations from local companies.

This is the second edition of this program in Whatcom, the first resulting in 48 installations in 2021. OCS has hosted Solarize in Thurston, Mason and several other counties, resulting in 250 installations since 2014. By mid-April, Solarize Whatcom garnered 80 signups, enrollment closing July 4.

Solarize Whatcom contracted Western Solar, Truly Electric and Solar, Northwest Electric and Solar and Blossom Solar for the program and offered a rate of $2.73 per watt. For the same 9-kilowatt system, that adds up to roughly $1,700 in savings. Participants will also receive a consultation, quote and preliminary design free of charge.

“We’re here so that you don’t have to try to bring 10 resources together and figure out how to navigate them,” said Emily Larson-Kubiak, energy and green building program manager for Sustainable Connections. “Even if you don’t end up doing solar or getting an energy audit, we will help you figure out your next step.”

(editor’s note: the current price of a solar system purchased through Solarize Whatcom will vary based on several factors.)

On top of the benefits of Solarize Whatcom, solar projects receive a federal 30 percent income tax credit, and solar products are exempt from Washington’s 6.5 percent sales tax. There are several other incentive programs from government agencies, nonprofits and utility companies, each with eligibility requirements and conditions.

Solar crew installing panels

courtesy photo: Olympia Community Solar
Olympia Community Solar crew installs panels at Quixote Village Tiny Home Community in Olympia. Quixote Communities, a nonprofit organization, will save about $500,000 on their energy bill in the next 40 years while providing permanent residency for people experiencing homelessness.

Riding the Solar Coaster

Puget Sound Energy (PSE) currently offers an incentive called net metering for systems under 100 kilowatts. Net metering means that if an array produces more electricity than a customer consumes, they earn credits towards future energy bills. This ensures lower annual bills despite the gloomy Pacific Northwest winters. At the current rate of one-to-one, 1 kilowatt hour of extra energy will equate to 1 kilowatt hour of energy credit on future bills.

PSE announced in March that one-to-one net metering will continue through 2025, but Washington state law requires utility companies to cancel one-to-one net metering once solar generation meets 4 percent of the utilities’ peak demand in 1996. The San Juan Islands have already reached the threshold. In Whatcom County, residential solar arrays installed before 2026 will be grandfathered into the current rate.

“They call it the solar coaster, every single year is very different and has different challenges,” Silesky said.

The highs and lows of the solar coaster not only make it difficult for homeowners to make plans, but solar businesses also need to account for high-level policy changes. Truly Electric and Solar (3) employs licensed electricians and offers a variety of residential and commercial services, including generators, heat pumps and electric vehicle charging stations.

“You have to be straight up and honest with your clients and tell them, these are today’s incentives if you want to wait and see what happens,” said Brad Stockton, owner of Truly Electric and Solar. “You can wait, and potentially the prices of things will come down, but then incentives might not be as good.”

One of the largest benefits of joining Solarize Whatcom is the security aspect, says Silesky. Not only do Sustainable Connections and OCS act as third-party advocates, but a fixed rate and contracted companies deter high-pressure sales tactics. Eighteen solar companies initially applied to be part of Solarize.

“Solar is this burgeoning new industry that is gaining popularity, and there’s people that see this as a quick money grab,” Stockton said. “It definitely puts a sour note on the solar industry as a whole.”

Stockton recommends getting at least three quotes from different companies before making a commitment. This way, a homeowner can get a sense of the average cost of a given system and explore multiple designs for a solar array.

Bellingham residents pay an average of $169 a month on their electricity bill, and a kilowatt hour costs roughly 11 cents.

Another way for homeowners to prepare for solar, while hedging against inflation and the rising costs of energy, is to explore energy-efficiency upgrades. This can include replacing your old furnace with a heat pump, adding or replacing insulation and other strategies. With the Community Energy Challenge (4), a partnership between Sustainable Connections and Opportunity Council, home and business owners can receive a discounted energy audit and earn rebates for select improvements.

“There’s a lot of things about modern life that, if we keep doing them exactly the same, we can’t maintain it,” Larson-Kubiak said. “That’s why I’m so focused on energy efficiency and solar, it’s an opportunity to do the same thing better.”

For those who cannot afford solar, or otherwise do not have the capability to install panels, there are many ways to cut down on the electric bill. For those interested in solar, these measures can improve your cost-efficiency. It’s a good idea to eat your energy efficiency vegetables before having your solar dessert, says Silesky.

map of solar arrays in western Washington

courtesy map: Olympia Community Solar
Olympia Community Solar has worked to spread solar throughout Western Washington since 2018. The majority of their work is in Thurston County, each array marked by pins in the map above.

Solar Politics

Alongside homes and businesses, much of the roof real estate in Whatcom County is owned by municipalities. The City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and the Port of Bellingham each have a climate-action plan, which serves as a goal and commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In each jurisdiction, which often overlap, several action items focus on potential solar projects.

In 2022, the Bellingham City Council adopted ordinance 2022-02-004(7), a building code requiring new construction to follow energy-efficiency guidelines. The code enforces electric heating and water heating systems, insulation-integrity standards, and ensuring that roofs are solar-ready. Some exemptions are made for single-family homes, but solar isn’t one of them.

The Port of Bellingham owns Whatcom County’s largest public solar array on the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, where 336 panels produced 147 megawatt hours in 2023. The port partnered with Sustainable Connections on this project and built a district energy system for heating and cooling at the Bellingham waterfront in 2018.

“We look at improving our buildings, and we support our tenants with their buildings,” said Mike Hogan, public affairs administrator for the port. “Our mission isn’t just to build an economy. It’s to build a sustainable economy, and, when we define where sustainability lands, its environment, economy, community.”

PSE’s Green Direct program is the largest carbon-slasher action for the port, according to Sustainability Program Manager Adrienne Douglass-Scott. Through Green Direct, the port purchases 100 percent renewable energy from PSE for its Bellingham operations.

Douglass-Scott considers the cruise terminal array an example of a low-hanging fruit when it comes to climate action. The building sees a lot of daily traffic, which results in high energy costs. The port is also in the design stage of a similar-sized solar array at the Bellingham International Airport, with plans to expand incrementally.

“We’ve gotten really good support from leadership, Douglass-Scott said. “There’s always hesitancy, and we try to make sure we’re doing the right thing because we’re publicly funded through taxes. We want to make sure that we’re being responsible with that.”

In the port’s climate-action strategy, one goal is to promote and support renewable energy within tenant-owned buildings. The port owns about 115 buildings and leases some to businesses on the waterfront and in Whatcom County. Some tenants already have solar, such as Wood Stone, an oven-manufacturing business which installed 180 panels in 2014.

Solarizing Small Businesses

Community Solar Projects

Another way to increase access to the environmental and economic benefits of solar is through community solar projects, where multiple individuals or organizations can buy shares of electricity generated from one array. The port has identified potential sites for community solar projects, including Fisherman’s Pavilion at Zuanich Point Park.

OCS has facilitated multiple community solar projects. At Hands on Children’s Museum in Olympia, 83 participants share a stake in over 300 panels. OCS distributes the revenue from the panels to the participants until they have made their money back, at which point the entire array will be donated to the museum. In another community solar project at the Olympia Farmers Market, OCS will donate the revenue collected by the panels to the nonprofit of the purchasers choosing.

PSE’s Community Solar Income-Eligible program offers free enrollment for low-income households. Qualifying participants can save up to $40 a month on their electric bill by claiming a stake at one of five Washington solar sites. Enrollment is currently full, but you can reserve a spot at https://www.pse.com/en/green-options/Renewable-Energy-Programs/Community-Solar-IE.

“Right now, community solar projects are pretty rare, and they’re usually offered as a premium by only a few utilities,” Silesky said. “We need a real community solar policy in Washington, so that everyone who can’t put solar on their roof can still join in and get the benefits of clean energy.”

In April, the United States Environmental Protection Agency announced a $7 billion Solar for All grant (8), more than $156 million of which was awarded to the Washington State Department of Commerce. Funded by the 2019 Inflation Reduction Act, these grants will apply to residential solar projects in low-income or disadvantaged areas.

The upfront costs of solar are its main deterrent. Policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Clean Energy Transformation Act (9) not only set aside up funds to kickstart solar projects, but set legal agreements for governments to commit to climate action, said Silesky.

Once that hurdle is overcome, solar can make dollars and sense environmentally and economically.


Meghan Fenwick is a graduate of Western Washington University who recently earned her degree in environmental journalism.


  1.  https://olysol.org/
  2.  https://sustainableconnections.org/
  3.  https://www.truly-electric.com/
  4.  https://sustainableconnections.org/community-energy-challenge/
  5.  https://www.green-labyrinth.com/
  6.  https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/energy-programs/rural-energy-america-program-renewable-energy-systems-energy-efficiency-improvement-guaranteed-loans
  7.  https://bellingham.municipal.codes/enactments/Ord2022-02-004
  8.  https://www.epa.gov/greenhouse-gas-reduction-fund/solar-all
  9.  https://www.commerce.wa.gov/growing-the-economy/energy/ceta/
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