Governor visits Washougal, touts community solar project

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (center) inspects a solar panel used in Clark Public Utilities' Community Solar East project at the Port of Camas-Washougal's industrial park in Washougal, Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. (Photos by Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

During a visit to the Port of Camas-Washougal’s industrial park in Washougal on Friday, Jan. 5,

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee praised local efforts to bring solar power to east Clark County residents.

“When I see a local community using their own moxie and teamwork, that’s really thrilling. That’s why I came today,” Inslee said, referring to the Clark Public Utilities’ community solar project located at the Port’s industrial park.

The governor compared the success of the community solar power project to that being enjoyed by members of the University of Washington (UW)’s nationally recognized football team.

“It’s all about the team and making sure everybody can be part of the effort. That’s why (the UW Huskies) are so successful,” Inslee said. “… You have a team, and you’ve made sure everybody in the community can be on the team. You’re using a tremendous, almost infinite resource of solar energy. You’re doing it on a financially sound basis. And, what is most impressive to me, you’re making sure that everybody in the community can access it, including people who are low-income, people who might not own their own roof.”

Inslee joined chief executives from the Port and Clark Public Utilities — David Ripp and Lena Wittler — and Matt Babbitts, Clark Public Utilities’ energy resources program manager, outside the Port’s recently opened Building 20, which offered clear views of the newly installed solar panels on the roofs of two other industrial park buildings, and spoke to a group of local officials and media gathered nearby.

“We believe that Community Solar East is really a great example of what public agency partnerships can achieve when we all work and collaborate together towards a common goal,” Babbitts said. “In this case, we had a public utility district working with a public port and collaborating with a state agency (Washington State University Energy Program), and the end result was a local renewable energy resource that’s going to benefit everyone in Clark County.”

The Port and Clark Public Utilities commissioners approved an agreement in January 2023 to install a 799-kilowatt solar system at five of the buildings at the Port’s industrial park. The agreement states that the CPU is responsible for designing, facilitating, constructing and managing the project while the Port hosts the panels.

CPU began selling solar units in September 2023, and expects the project to start generating solar energy later this month.

The project prevents the need for residents, governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses to purchase and install solar panels on their homes and buildings. It has various buy-in options for residential, business and government customers, as well as 199 kilowatts reserved for the utility’s Operation Warm Heart fund to benefit low-income customers.

“Starting this year and going 25 years into the future — the life of the project — the 199 kilowatts of installed capacity is going to generate about 229,000 kilowatt hours each year, (which) comes out to just over $18,600 that will go directly into the Operation Warm Heart account,” Babbitts said. “Over the life of the system, that’s more than $460,000 in low-income grant funding that Community Solar East is going to create for those customers in Clark County that are in the most financial need, which is just such a great outcome.”

Babbitts said the project will provide energy to customers at to $1.70 per watt, lower than a residential rooftop system that averages between $3.30 and $4.50 per watt.

“I’m kind of a cheap guy,” Inslee said. “I love free energy, and that sun, falling on us for free, is a sweet thing. Instead of paying gas prices and oil prices, (to) get on a new technology that’s coming down in price is incredible. (Solar energy has) come down in price almost 80 percent in the last decade. This is getting cheaper very rapidly.”

Inslee noted Friday that community solar projects also help create a healthier environment, and referenced a Washington State Department of Health report that found residents in 16 communities with high carbon pollution had their lifespan shortened by an average of 2.5 years compared to the average Washingtonian.

“People are dying today because of the carbon pollution that you are preventing,” Inslee said. “Your efforts are saving lives, and I hope you feel a lot of pride in doing that. That means people are having two-and-a-half more birthdays than they would have had otherwise because you’ve given them clean air, so I consider this a major achievement.”

The governor added that funds from the Washington Climate Commitment Act’s carbon emissions reduction cap-and-invest program, which seeks to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2050, will help bring more community solar projects online in the near future.

“This is one of hundreds of these facilities that we need to build so we can defeat climate change and protect the health of our kids. We’re going to keep this ball rolling,” Inslee said. “We can’t allow the oil and gas industry to destroy the Climate Commitment Act, which is so pivotal to help people across the state of Washington (do) what you are doing right here. Our state moves forward, this county is going forward, and this port is going forward. We’re not going to go backwards in the state of Washington.”

Ripp said the governor’s interest in the local solar project is great for the Port.

“I mean, it’s not every day you get the governor coming into your town,” Ripp said. “It highlights and showcases that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. And he sees other things — we received state funds for (some of our industrial) buildings, for example, and we were able to show the benefits of his support. I get to brag and highlight the things that we’re doing right now.”

Ripp said the event also highlighted the Port’s partners, including the cities of Camas and Washougal and the Camas and Washougal school districts, which have bought into the community solar project.