Bellingham solar panel companies begin to unlock commercial market

Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, visited Silfab Solar Inc. in Bellingham on July 17, 2019. During his speech, he highlighted the advancement of clean energy jobs in the state and the celebrated expansion of Silfab Solar. The governor’s visit comes just months after the Washington State Senate approved SB 5116, requiring all electric utilities to meet 100 percent of its retail electric load with renewable sources by 2045.

“The saviors of our planet are right here in this building,” Inslee said. “People that are expanding solar production are not only the people creating over 100 jobs in Bellingham Washington but are giving a shot to our children and our grandchildren.”

Silfab Solar is one of the top five producers of solar panels in the U.S. but is not the only solar company in town helping residents and businesses go green. Local companies, Western Solar and Ecotech Solar are working together with Sustainable Connections to guide businesses through the transition to renewable energy. Earlier this spring the groups put together a ‘Solarize for Smart Business’ campaign. The energy efficiency campaign focused on helping businesses navigate solar energy grants, incentives, loans and contracts.

This is the second campaign run by Sustainable Connections. The first campaign in 2016 focused on residential customers, said Rose Lathrop, program director at Sustainable Connections. The campaign led to 48 solar systems to be installed in Whatcom County and generated 1.2 million in solar economic development. Also, each solar panel installer donated one panel to the Bellingham Food Bank resulting in a 48-panel system installed at the Food Bank, Lathrop said.

After receiving a $10,000 grant from Spark Northwest, Sustainable Connections held three energy efficiency seminars, one in Anacortes, one in Lynden and one in Mt. Vernon. The seminars helped businesses, such as those in the agriculture sector, finance solar panel installation. The seminars also helped businesses navigate the Rural Energy for America Program or REAP grants. The federal grants are available to businesses outside of Bellingham and Ferndale to fund the solar installation.

“When you drive up to a business and you see solar, people within our community are more likely to shop or frequent businesses that have shared values of energy efficiency and climate change,” Lathrop said.

While it is still too soon to determine the success of the 2019 campaign, Lathrop anticipates quite a few projects to stem from it. One of the first bids resulting from the 2019 campaign was for Skagit Valley Malting to potentially install a $250,000 system. By taking advantage of a federal tax credit, REAP Grant, solar installer discount, accelerated appreciation and sales tax exemption they could see a return on investment after 3.5 years, Lathrop said.

Since solar was first invented in 1953 by Bell Labs in New Jersey, the technology has continued to advance and be integrated into residential and commercial sectors. The panels transform visible light that is reaching the earth into electric currents. In Washington most of the panels are designed to collect light at lower angles so that the panel can still generate electricity even on overcast days, said Markus Virta, director of sales and business development for Western Solar.

“The whole concept of solar is that you are fixing your cost of electricity,” said Virta. “As we’re transitioning away from hydrocarbons and fossil fuels, electricity is the main way we can decarbonize our planet.”

While the residential market for solar panels has been steadily increasing the commercial market is just now starting to be unlocked, said Virta. Part of the reason it can be tricky for a business to go solar is due to regulations and the financing involved for such a large project. However, programs like REAP alongside credit unions in Washington that specialize in solar, businesses can make the transition affordable, Virta said.

“We are able to offer lower rates to small rural businesses than what the rest of the market can afford and opportunities to help get solar out to folks businesses that typically wouldn’t be able to afford them,” Virta said.

As solar becomes less expensive and more accessible a greater number of people stand to benefit from energy savings. Dana Brandt started Ecotech Solar in 2004 as the first solar contractor in Whatcom County. Since then his business has grown to employ 13 and has helped outfit dozens of businesses with solar arrays. Sustainable connections have been a really important partner and helped us find some of our first jobs in the county, Brandt said.

“When I started it seemed laughable to do solar in Whatcom County,” Brandt said. “In the early days, the economics didn’t line up well. Now it’s more accessible to any business with good roof space that isn’t shaded.

Ecotech has outfitted businesses such as Wood’s Coffee at Boulevard Park, Alluvial Farms and Kulshan College of Intuitive Medicine. They also installed the largest array, 127 kilowatts, in Whatcom County at Irongate Machine. We see a lot of interests from businesses because it helps them control their long-term expenditures, Brandt said. “The future is bright for solar,” he said.


Related Stories