Consultant Ellen Lamiman, owner of Energy Solutions in Winthrop, helped a group of Leavenworth women meet their goal of building a community solar farm on the roof of Icicle River Middle School.
Want to build a solar system? Consultant Ellen Lamiman knows how to get ‘er done
When three Leavenworth women decided their city should have the first community solar system in Chelan County, they turned to the woman who had helped build the first community solar system in Washington state.
Consultant Ellen Lamiman of Winthrop put the Leavenworth project on a fast track and within five months, a 19-kilowatt system was up and running – way up, that is, on the roof of Icicle River Middle School. It was connected to Chelan County PUD’s electrical grid on June 27.
In 2010, Lamiman brought a 20-kilowatt system to the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative in Winthrop – the first community system to take advantage of generous incentives under the Washington Renewable Energy Cost Recovery Program. In 2006, she had served as a consultant for construction of the state’s first community solar farm in Ellensburg, a project that helped smooth the way for development and passage of the current state incentive program.
Lamiman said she had been contacted several times by various Leavenworth residents about setting up solar in town. But it wasn’t until members of Faith Lutheran Church called her that a project gelled this year. Members of the church’s Earth Stewardship Group, reading a book on climate change by Frances Moore Lappé, were motivated to help reduce the city’s carbon footprint. They called Lamiman.
Lamiman said Lisa Therrell, Mary Carol Nelson and Karen Strom “stuck with it” even though the paperwork, technical specifications and laws around community solar are “way, way out of the box for them.”
Anyone who’s met Lamiman knows she’s a force to be reckoned with, too. When you’re a pioneer with a passion for what you’re doing – and Lamiman’s experience with solar stretches back 19 years – you’ve got to be.
The solar system at Icicle River Middle School was connected to Chelan PUD’s electrical grid on June 27. Investors will be paid through a state incentive program and the school will receive funds through the PUD’s SNAP program.
You need to navigate the complicated state program and its associated pitfalls, including securities rules designed for bigger corporations, not small local projects. To ease the regulatory way for the Leavenworth endeavor, Lamiman struck upon the idea of using the church’s nonprofit status to apply for an exemption. The catch: Shares in the community solar project could only be advertised or sold to people who had had some involvement or relationship with the church or middle school.
Not a problem, said Lamiman, who learned long ago that “in all cases it really boils down to trust. Everyone thinks solar is a great idea but no one’s going to put up money if they don’t have that trust” in the people planning each project.
Lamiman has helped establish 35 or 40 systems around the state, some in the backyards of friends and acquaintances, others large and showy like the new one at Leavenworth. Her first installation was at the Okanogan Electric co-op where in 1995 she installed what she thinks may have been the first utility-owned, grid-tied, battery-based system in the country. “To this day that system runs and backs up all computers, the telephone system and emergency lights,” she said. “That launched my career.”
Prior to that she had coordinated Bonneville Power Administration’s conservation program for co-op members.
She runs her business, Energy Solutions, from her home. She hasn’t had any trouble finding takers for solar in her area, where power costs are more than double Chelan County PUD’s residential rate of 2.7 cents per kilowatt hour. Thirty-one co-op members signed on to the 2010 project within two weeks. So many people had wanted to invest, in fact, that a second project was built near Winthrop’s sewage treatment plant. That 23-kilowatt project, with 49 investors, began producing power in 2011. And in 2012, a 35-kilowatt system was installed in Twisp in Okanogan County PUD’s territory with 38 investors.
There won’t be any more community solar under the current state program though, Lamiman said, unless the Legislature modifies and extends it. Set to expire in 2020, that leaves only six years for investors to recover their costs and make a profit. The state program pays $1.08 per kilowatt hour, which is why Lamiman pushed hard to make a self-imposed deadline of July 1 for the Leavenworth system to be generating electricity. You’ve got to make hay – or kilowatts, that is – while the sun shines.
It’s only been in the last couple of years that solar has really taken off in the state, Lamiman noted. It’s been mostly smaller companies doing local work, but there’s a concern that that may change, with big corporations coming into Washington State and leasing solar systems to homeowners. While an increase in solar generation is beneficial, the change could hurt local installers and manufacturers, she said. She expects the Legislature to debate how to protect homeowners and businesses, and to discuss changes to the Renewable Energy Cost Recovery Program, in 2015.
“Solar has passed the stage of early adopters,” she said. “The price has dropped dramatically for modules and inverters so people’s interest can still be piqued by solar. People want it for a lot of reasons. There’s a large desire to participate in that future.”
Volunteers install Leavenworth’s first community solar project (Wenatchee World)
Making it pay while the sun shines (Chelan PUD “Connected” blog)
Chelan County PUD SNAP program (PUD website)