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Quick Fact: Rooftop Solar and Our Local Energy Future

Rooftop Solar and Our Local Energy Future

Washington State is pushing hard to remove carbon emissions from our daily lives –  decommissioning coal plants and electrifying heating and transportation (including electric ferries).

But reliable, affordable power is in jeopardy. Regional demand is expected to grow by 50% by 2030, but new regional renewable energy supply projects can’t be built in time.

Going forward, there will be no such thing as “business as usual.” A lot more local generation will be needed to cushion future power price escalation and major blackouts during extreme weather events when our membership requires reliable power the most.

chartSolar and tidal energy have the best local generation potential. Rooftop solar is essential for our energy transition away from fossil fuels, but it can only do so much. The chart at right shows the 2024 January cold snap when regional power almost crashed. The black line is the county load. The red line is an example of rooftop solar production if every house in the county had rooftop solar. It barely moves the needle. And rooftop doesn’t work during blackouts.

Larger microgrids, like the Bailer Hill project, can help produce more local energy. The Bailer Hill agrisolar array will more than double the county’s rooftop solar production, and it works during blackouts.

Protecting our county can only be done with community support. Working in cooperation with farmers, agrisolar can get the job done, using less than 0.5% of county land, leased from farmers, helping them improve farm economics while helping use the sun twice – for farming and energy generation.

How much rooftop solar is there in San Juan County?

  • Currently, 720 home/business rooftop solar systems supply about 2% of county electric energy use; projected to supply just 4% by 2030.
  • Though rooftop solar has grown steadily since 2008, it was initially driven by early adopters who could afford the expensive systems.
  • In 2022, OPALCO’s Switch-It-Up program doubled the rooftop solar growth rate by making it more affordable for the average member, providing low-interest on-bill financing to members for rooftop solar project.

Why is OPALCO doing the Bailer Hill Community Microgrid project rather than more rooftop solar, especially on large commercial buildings?

  • Rooftop solar will be a small fraction of the 2030 local generation mix and doesn’t work during power outages. Microgrids, on the other hand, are designed to power critical community services during outages and are lower cost thanks to grants and economies of scale. They also provide additional community benefits through collaboration with local farmers.
  • Only the commercial building owner can decide to install rooftop solar and would typically size it for their needs. Remember that though a commercial roof looks large, it’s vastly smaller than a community solar array. The Bailer Hill agrisolar array will produce more than double all the current rooftop solar production in the county.
  • Each rooftop solar system has its own inverter, which can reduce grid power quality. With over 720 rooftop solar customers, OPALCO is planning significant investments in grid systems to maintain power quality as more solar inverters come online. A single microgrid can produce the same amount of energy as all rooftop solar systems combined, with just one high-quality inverter.

Learn More

Harvesting the Sun – This video is chock full of agri-solar info. Featuring experts from Oregon State University (OSU), the National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL), and others.

“In Harvesting the Sun, the leading voices of the agri-solar movement come together to share their stories and shine a light on a climate solution that can increase farm profitability, save valuable water, improve the soil, provide shade for farm workers, develop valuable ecosystem services, and increase the resiliency of rural communities.”

The 2022 USDA Ag Census of San Juan County farmland economics shows that we have 264 farms, on 19,571 acres, averaging 74 acres per farm. Even with government subsidies, each farm loses an average of $3,754 annually. And the cost of farmland is rising rapidly as our population swells. The economics are not sustainable. To increase local food production, we need healthy farm economics. Agri-solar is raised up on stilts, allowing farming beneath. It increases farmland productivity and provides dual use of the sun – producing food and energy. That energy produces an additional income for the farm of about $8,300 per acre per year, turning the typical farm here cashflow positive. 35% of county electricity use could be generated with just 0.5% of all land in San Juan County.

Energy System Near Miss – February 2024 OPALCO Board meeting presentation on the January 2024 cold snap. Includes analysis of 25 GW gap in supply and demand.

Cold Snap Strains Northwest Utilities as Energy Prices Surge – In the days before the cold front came in, SnoPUD held back water at its 112 MW Jackson Hydro Project. Once the temperatures started to fall, it ran the project at max generation throughout the event. The PUD still had to turn to the market despite the high prices. “It was all-hands on our power trading desk.” “Market prices hit the Western Electricity Coordinating Council’s $1,000/MW soft cap. The California Independent System Operator raised its soft cap from $1,000/MW to $2,000/MW for several hours during the three-day-long cold snap”

Counties are blocking wind and solar across the US – USA Today – Statewide blocks and limits put the nationwide goal to reach 100% clean energy by 2035 at risk.

“Local governments are banning green energy faster than they’re building it.”

A New Surge in Power Use Is Threatening U.S. Climate Goals – NY Times – “Many power companies were already struggling to keep the lights on, especially during extreme weather, and say the strain on grids will only increase. Peak demand in the summer is projected to grow by 38,000 megawatts nationwide in the next five years, according to an analysis by the consulting firm Grid Strategies, which is like adding another California to the grid.” “The stakes are high. If more power isn’t brought online relatively soon, large portions of the country could risk blackouts, according to a recent report by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which monitors the health of the nation’s electric grids.”

Quick Fact: Northwest Resource Adequacy in a Rapidly Decarbonizing World – OPALCO has been concerned about the growing supply-demand problem for several years. This Quick Fact from two years ago has more background and links to deepen your understanding of rolling blackouts, and forecasts on load and generation.

Congressional action on energy permitting remains stuck, but states and developers are finding solutions  Environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council is breaking with its past position to agree. “NRDC has historically said ‘no’ to infrastructure that was a threat to the environment,” said NRDC Senior Clean Energy Transmission Advocate Cullen Howe. But pivoting to “yes” by pushing to make permitting reforms more efficient is “a necessary change,” though the reforms will likely force “hard choices,” he acknowledged.” “Outdated environmental rules and hundreds of amendments and judicial interpretations built into them are causing “a crippling delay in permitting new projects,…”

Solar on Farmland – Opportunities and Considerations in NW Washington – This excellent 88 minute video is moderated by Faith Van De Putte, San Juan County Agricultural Resources Committee, hosted by WSU SJC Extension and SJC ARC. It features farmer and OSU engineer Chad Higgins.

“In the face of climate change and development pressure, Northwest Washington needs both solar power generation and increased protection of agricultural land. Agrivoltaics are an emerging strategy that incorporates photovoltaic arrays into agricultural systems. We take a look at some pros and cons of adding solar to a farm operation, offer some considerations for where and when to site solar on a farm, and discuss what to include in your decision-making tree as you think about adding solar arrays to your farm or land. We also hear about the impact of solar on agricultural ecosystems, the opportunities it provides, and a brief overview of the costs of installation and incentives that are available. This presentation is geared toward farmers and agricultural landowners, although all are welcome.”

Agrivoltaics Combines Production of Agriculture and Solar Power – Sierra Club

“Agrivoltaics, which pairs solar panels (photovoltaics) with agriculture, is a double-duty climate solution that yields benefits to farmers while minimizing the Nation’s need to use undeveloped natural lands for solar energy development.” 

Recognizing and combating power quality issues in solar power systems – PV Magazine

“High voltage can cause core saturation and excessive heating in motors. This can create higher than normal inrush currents in motors that are found in air conditioners, washer, dryers and refrigerators that turn on and off multiple times a day.”


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