At 6 am this morning, our home was using two-tenths of a kilowatt/hour (KWh) of electricity from the regional power grid – just enough to power my favorite reading light and the coffeemaker, which was burping merrily from the kitchen.

At 7 am, the coffee was brewed, and we were using 1 KWh, but nothing from the grid.

At 8 am, I started the laundry, which sucks up nearly half a kwh – but not from the grid.  We were actually sending .2 KWh back to the grid!

I know this courtesy of my phone (much smarter than I am) which is linked to our breaker panel, which is linked to the grid…. And to the solar array recently installed on our south-facing roof.

It wasn’t cheap.  While solar panels have become more efficient and 40 percent cheaper over the past five years, our panels and the accompanying heat pump cost the equivalent of a small Toyota.   It will take years to pay for itself.

Despite our greenest sensibilities, Port Townsend is not a major solar market. Sure, thanks to the Olympics and their rain shadow, we see more sun than most of Western Washington. But Jefferson PUD, which knows about these things, reports that about 450 of its 20,000 customers are equipped with solar arrays. These account for a negligible three megawatt/hours (MWhs) of power.

It’s not that we’re all power slouches.  Even here in the rain shadow, we get less sun than much of the world.  And, thanks to Columbia River hydropower, our electricity rates remain dirt cheap.  At this point, solar still can’t compete.

As a result, Washington draws just one quarter of one percent of its power from solar, which puts us 36th of the 50 states.  And, given the economics, there is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.

But there is hope.   On a recent post-vaccination road trip, I was astounded by the development of solar and wind farms across the sun-baked west – ironically in the very regions where one would expect resistance.

Northwest of Las Vegas, I crossed a desert ridge and was struck by the view of a beautiful, deep blue lake.  Except it was not a lake, but a commercial solar farm comprised of thousands of panels reflecting the southwest sky.

Solar and wind farms are popping up across the west, from Phoenix to Nevada and Idaho and eastern Washington, where ranchers who may deny climate change are finding it more profitable to grow electricity than grain or cows. 

Not so much in Western Washington, where we rely on equally green hydropower and, when we need a little extra, we buy our solar from our friends on the other side of the mountains.

But for now, it’s comforting to know my morning coffee is being brewed by sunlight. And I’ve become addicted to the app that tells me our excess rooftop electrons are flowing back to the Jefferson PUD, which promises to return the favor, watt for watt,  when the sun migrates south next winter.

Feature image above: “The sun” by Lima Andruška is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

8 COMMENTS

  1. Nice piece, Ross. People should be realistic about what can be done with any energy source. Hydropower dams in the Mojave Desert aren’t wise, and solar in a rain forest isn’t either. At least not yet.

    Carolyn and I grew up in central and western Kansas, right in the middle of deep red country. On visits there we would drive through fields full of taxpayer-subsidized corn or wheat crops. But a couple of years ago we saw many fields full of wind machines. Great crop in western KS, where it’s dry but windy all year.

  2. Ross, the economics make no sense, unless the system adds value to the house when it sells. Seems like some researchers must have studied that.

    • Agreed, Gary. But then many, perhaps most of our purchases and other life decisions don’t make economic sense — at least in the short run. I did it so I can spend time studying that app instead of reading about an increasingly irrational world. Onward and upward. -r

  3. We invested in Solar when there were incentives in Jefferson County, using Fredrickson Electric to install (local company) did a great job. We received a rebate, and save money during the summer months and sometime in the winter. We also have an electric car which also saves on gas. Driving across the country from WA to MN (not with the electric car) there were lots of wind farms, some solar and plenty of corn fields (mostly used as cattle feed). Alternative energy can work.

  4. Very nicely done, and certainly interesting. I’ve been struck by the huge solar arrays in the desert, too, and was surprised at how few PT residents or county residents use solar…a friend in Germany just bought an expensive collector; rural German villages are another place that I noticed lots of solar panels on rooftops. A little at a time….

  5. Solar is an example of doing something to feel like trying to help, and you can save on your own electric bill, but it doesn’t really help our planet. Because of lack of storage, the utility companies need to have 100% capacity for cloudy days or nights, and cannot easily dial down their output on sunny days, so we see significant increases in power plants needed throughout the country. Germany is a good example of putting so many resources into solar and wind, and still growing there power plant output significantly over the same period. If you then add in the extraction of minerals for solar panels and the space that arrays take in the dessert and the environmental consequences of that…
    Increasingly we are going to natural gas, but even more we are touting biomass burning to generate power: let’s see, we cut down trees that produce oxygen to fuel power plants to generate carbon dioxide, how does that work?
    The only alternative energy that can really work is to use less. Turning off some appliances or making do with less, to me, is a better alternative.

    • Understood, Charley. This speaks to one of the issues surrounding Snake River dams. One of the huge advantages of hydro is that hydropower is interruptible; you can turn the generators on during periods of peak demand, turn them off at night. Not doable with solar or wind. All too darn complex for my failing powers to add or detract. But I still like our new panels.

Leave a Comment