Port of Camas-Washougal, Clark Public Utilities collaborate on new community solar project

Solar panels to be installed at 5 buildings in Port's industrial park in Washougal

timestamp icon
category icon Business, Latest News, News
Clark Public Utilities workers inspect a community solar project constructed in 2015, in Vancouver's Orchards neighborhood. (Contributed photo courtesy of Clark Public Utilities)

The Port of Camas-Washougal is going solar in a big way.

Port and Clark Public Utilities (CPU) commissioners have approved an agreement to install a 799-kilowatt solar system at five of the buildings at the Port’s industrial park.

“We’re very excited for this collaboration with the Port,” CPU media specialist Dameon Pasanti said. “Our first community solar array is extremely popular with program participants. We’re looking forward to presenting another community owned renewable energy facility to our customers.”

David Ripp, the Port’s chief executive officer, said the solar project fits with the Port’s goal of reducing its overall carbon footprint.

“This partnership will not only benefit all of Clark County and our Port district, but more importantly, the environment,” Ripp said during a CPU commission meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17. “It shows everyone we want to reduce greenhouse emissions, diversify our energy sources and have our constituents participate.”

The CPU launched five community solar projects at its operating center in Orchards in 2015, and is planning to implement a similar plan in Washougal, according to Matt Babbitts, a program manager for the utility’s energy resources department.

“We had quite a bit of success with that project,” Babbitts said of the Orchards solar project during a Port of Camas-Washougal Commission meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 18. “I can tell you, from the utility’s point of view, we’re really excited to continue to focus on community solar and hopefully develop another project for our mutual customers.”

CPU and Port officials have been talking about a community solar partnership for more than a year, according to Babbitts.

“There’s been a lot of background to this project,” he said. “When we started these conversations, we knew we had two high-level objectives — we wanted to develop a new renewable energy resource that our mutual customers can participate in, and we also want to highlight our commitment to clean energy, not just for Clark Public Utilities, but certainly for the Port of Camas-Washougal.”

Port officials determined that five of the buildings (Nos. 18, 17, 15, 14 and 12) at their industrial park could be used to host a community solar project site — a fact later confirmed by an HHPR Engineering analysis..

“We wanted to make sure that the buildings could facilitate a whole megawatt of installed solar capacity,” Babbitts said. “The analysis showed that the five core buildings identified were well suited for this project and could bear the weight.”

Babbitts said the CPU will oversee the construction and day-to-day management of the project, as well as customer subscription opportunities and account allocations, while the Port will play “a very important role” as the project’s site host.

“We couldn’t do it without” the Port, Babbitts said.

Babbitts also said that “all of the participating customers will purchase shares or units of the projects and pay a participation fee.”

“We will design this project so that those participation fees are equal to the development costs of the project,” he said. “That’s important because we’re not shifting any of the project costs to general ratepayers at the utility who are not necessarily participating in the program. That’s also important for the Port; we don’t want to ship any cost to the Port or any of its tenants or customers. We need to make sure that the revenues that we get from the customers match the expenses that go out the door to develop and construct the project. We were successful doing that in 2015 when we developed those original projects.”

Range of options for residential, business customers

The community solar project will allow residential customers to purchase shares, or “units,” of a solar array and split the benefits, according to the CPU, and will offer a wide range of options — from $85 for 25,000 watts to $8,500 for 125,000 watts.

If the initial interest is strong, the utility will reduce the maximum participation level in an effort to allow for more broad customer participation, according to Babbitts, who added that the 300 kilowatts of installed capacity reserved for residential customers will likely allow for between 600 to 800 individual participants.

“The pricing on this is pretty competitive,” Babbitts said. “If you were to install an average 5-kilowatt system in your house, you’re probably looking at about $15,000, maybe even a little more. So by developing a large project over five buildings, we can really capture the economies of scale that comes with volume pricing and bring the cost down for the participating customers.”

CPU commissioner Jane Van Dyke said during the Jan. 17 meeting that she’s “not worried about (a lack of) subscriptions.”

“We’ve had so many requests,” she said. “I think it’s really great that we have the different levels because that really will make it affordable even for a regular family to say, ‘We’re participants.’ I’m very excited about the project, and I appreciate the Port of Camas-Washougal stepping forward.”

According to CPU, there are more than 700 participants in the existing Clark County community solar projects and approximately 30 homes powered annually by the CPU’s five existing community solar sites.

CPU will also offer to program to non-residential customers as well, with participation options ranging from $85 to $17,000.

“One of the goals we had at the utility with this project is not just making it available to our residential customers like our previous community solar project, but also have an opportunity for commercial, industrial and government agency customers to participate in the program,” Babbitts said. “And that availability, or opportunity to participate, will certainly be made to the Port of Camas-Washougal’s tenants.”

Babbitts anticipates the Port of Camas-Washougal community solar project will be done by the end of 2023.

“Once you go to bid and get the contractor bids back, we’ll have to execute a contract for all five phases of this project. We hope to have that done by June of this year,” he said. “And then we can start the actual construction or installation phase — the installation took about two to three months to get that done when we developed the first one, so hopefully the construction phase would be done by Dec. 1, but I think there is a likelihood we might even be able to beat that deadline. And then ultimately, we’ll want to commission the project … (with) a ribbon cutting ceremony (like we did) back in 2015.”

‘One of the most important projects the Port has been involved with’

The project drew praise from Port commissioners and community members during the Port’s Jan. 18 meeting.

“I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the community to help (reduce its) carbon footprint,” Port Commissioner Larry Keister said. “I’m very supportive of this. I think it’s the right direction for the Port.”

“This is such an efficient way to get that size of solar installation into east Clark County,” Port Commissioner Cassi Marshall added. “Putting in that large of a system makes it that much more affordable for anybody who wants to participate. The big thing is the scalability, which feeds into the whole equity part of it — people who maybe wouldn’t participate in anything solar in any other way have that option. I’m just really proud of the Port for stepping up.”

Camas resident Don Miller said that he and his wife purchased a Tesla solar roof in October 2021, and that it produced 23% more power than their house used in 2022.

“(That was) kind of surprising given the weather in this area, but in the summer we get a lot of sun,” he told Port leaders. “… Most of the power demand in the Northwest is west of the Cascades — Portland, Seattle … However, most of the power production is east of the Cascades. Producing power close to where it is used enables us to bring it online much faster than if generation and consumption are far apart.”

Miller said he thinks it’s important to “set an example for others in the area who are planning to build buildings with large roofs or already own them and are considering solar.”

“Once you have some experience,” Miller told the Port commissioners, “I think it’d be great if your facilities people could share their experiences, both good and bad, with others in the area who are considering solar for their large roofs.”

Camas resident Hiedi Culbertson said she believes the solar program “is one of the most important projects the Port has been involved with.”

“I was perusing the Port website last night, and I want to extend a huge kudos to whomever it was that came up with the clever play on words that you see each time you click on a different section of the website,” she said. “The phrase says, ‘It’s our nature to…’ followed by a verb — it’s our nature to serve, it’s our nature to help, it’s our nature to thrive, it’s our nature to preserve. I can’t think of a project that would be a better fit for exemplifying those phrases than the community solar project that’s being discussed here today.”