Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 8
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Community solar moves forward, Whitman’s role uncertain

Credit: Carrie Sloane

If you’ve ever wanted to make money, save the planet or provide Whitman students with more scholarships, Fred Liebrand has a project for you. The Walla Walla University professor of physics has been developing a community solar project which would take advantage of generous state and federal tax incentives to install solar panels around Walla Walla, allowing local colleges to reap the benefits.

After almost two years of work on the project, Liebrand recently secured approval from the state for a 75-kilowatt installation at the Walla Walla Regional Airport. He hopes to use the power and money these panels produce to provide scholarships for Whitman, Walla Walla University (WWU) and Walla Walla Community College (WWCC) students.

“At a time when it’s getting harder for students to go to college, I think the ability to replace some funding [for colleges] with programs that are not only good for the community, but good for the environment is the right thing to do,” he said.

At its core, a community solar project is an investment opportunity. Interested parties could purchase panels and other equipment through the community solar project, which would be its own legal entity. The organizers would oversee all technical aspects of the installation, from purchasing and maintaining panels to filling out paperwork. Investors would receive a check for the state’s production incentives: currently $1.08 per kilowatt hour for a community project with panels made in-state. This money would be dispersed via local utilities, which are given a tax credit by the state to cover the cost of incentive payments.

Over an eight-year period, Washington’s solar incentives would more than pay for the cost of the original installation, allowing investors to make a profit. Liebrand has estimated that from an original investment of 10,000 dollars on a solar system, incentives would total approximately 21,000 dollars over an eight year period. Individuals electing not to keep these incentives could instead donate them to a college, where they would be used for scholarships.

The individual would be able to write off the incentive donation for tax purposes, which would provide them with a tax benefit of about 8000 dollars. Through this tax write-off, they would recapture most of their original investment while providing a substantial amount of scholarship money for the college.

The panels would also be donated to the colleges after the eight-year period for production incentives ends, and colleges would be able to use the power the panels generate, thus reducing their electricity bills.

Whitman is currently not involved in the community solar project, though Bob Carson, professor of geology and environmental studies, hopes to see this change.

“We can and should attempt to do more environmentally,” said Carson.

He believes the project is important for environmental reasons, both as a tool to combat climate change and as a way of educating Whitman students about the benefits of renewable energy. Even without the environmental benefits, he stressed that Whitman stands to make money by participating.

“If an alum gives all of their savings and profits [from the project] to the college, the college would do quite well,” he said.

Sustainability Coordinator senior Nat Clarke also hoped that the college would choose to participate in the project.

“It’s a meaningful project for Walla Walla,” he said. “It’s a meaningful project for Whitman, outside of any financial benefits.”

Whitman Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey said that the college is currently unable to spend time soliciting alumni participation in the project, since the college is focused on a major campaign to grow the endowment. However, Whitman may still choose to participate in some capacity. Liebrand is currently working with the Whitman administration to discuss this possibility. Even without active alumni recruitment, Liebrand said Whitman could still receive incentives from the project.

Another issue of concern to Liebrand is solar project placement. Under existing state law, community solar projects cannot be located on college and university campuses. A proposed bill in the Washington State legislature, HB 1144 would have changed this by permitting projects on eligible college campuses. However, after passing the house, the bill was amended substantially with very specific requirements for schools which would be allowed to site projects. As written, none of Walla Walla’s colleges would qualify for inclusion. The bill is currently in the State Senate’s Ways and Means Committee and has not seen any major action since the end of March.

Liebrand has lobbied for previous versions of the bill, but does not support the restrictions which make it impossible for Walla Walla schools to participate. He said that allowing installations on campuses would make it easier for students to learn about panel installation and other technical aspects of the project. This is especially of interest to WWU and WWCC students, since both schools have technical programs focusing on renewable energy.

Even with its amendments, Liebrand believes budget concerns have impacted the bill’s chances of passing, since more solar projects mean more production incentives have to be paid out.

“There seems to be a fear [in Olympia] that if they make it seem like [a community solar project] is an easy thing to do, a lot of people will do it,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to do.”

A representative from Senator Mike Hewitt’s office said that the senator–who represents Walla Walla–was in support of the premise of the bill, but would not comment on Hewitt’s opinion of the current version. He was also unsure of the bill’s chances of passing given the state of Washington’s budget.

“There’s not a lot of appetite here to give money away for a tax exemption, however noble it may be,” he said.

The representative said that the bill will likely not move out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee without action from Senate Democrats, who are the majority party. Thus far, they have not placed the bill on the committee’s agenda.
Regardless of the outcome of HB 1144, Liebrand is moving ahead with the project. Currently, he is soliciting bids for the airport installation, and will begin collecting money from investors once a bid is selected. He is optimistic that the project will be able to provide significant benefits for Walla Walla’s colleges as well as serve as an educational tool for the community.
Clarke also hopes to see the project grow, and believes Whitman students will be instrumental in determining the college’s eventual role in the project.

“I really hope that students start discussing this,” he said. “[They] could help make this happen if they wanted to.”

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