Laws power up renewable energy efforts

Legislature and WSU lead state to broad development of wind and solar energy

Hailed as the most progressive renewable energy legislation passed in the United States, two energy bills took effect this summer after earlier approval by the Washington State Legislature.

The next step is making renewable energy available, affordable and understandable to the public. WSU’s Mike Nelson and Matt Taylor are working to do just that.

Taylor, assistant professor of architecture, is testing various solar beds to see which work best in the Pacific Northwest environment.

Nelson, manager of the Northwest Solar Center and the WSU solar and wind extension program, worked actively with the state Senate this past year in developing the two bills.

The first bill, SB 5101, establishes market demand for renewable projects such as solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind energy. The law uses a renewable production incentive that gives a credit of 15-50 cents per kWh of electricity generated to homes and businesses with solar PV and wind power systems. Based on average use, this could mean a payment for power production of up to $2,000 annually.

The second bill, SB 5111, provides tax breaks for renewable energy businesses.

“I believe the real breakthroughs will come from clever architectural design — the details that will drive down prices, installation and techniques,” Nelson said.

Consequently, Taylor and a team of students have been working to build an 800-square-foot home completely reliant on solar energy. The home will compete against projects from 18 other universities in October in an international contest.

Building a true solar-powered home is still not cheap. If a home of 800 square feet were converted to solar energy, the bill would top out at about $30,000.

Go with the wind
In addition to solar, Nelson sees a future for wind-generated energy in the Pacific Northwest. “It is estimated that 90,000 megawatts of energy (its “nameplate capacity” or factory-rated output) could be harnessed off the Washington and Oregon coasts,” he said.

To put this in perspective, Grand Coulee Dam has a nameplate capacity of about 6,800 megawatts and produces about 21 million megawatt hours of electricity in an average year (for details see It is the largest single producer of hydroelectric power in the United States.

The U.S. ranks second in the world in terms of wind power production, but that only represents 0.4 percent of the nation’s electrical usage.

Cost is a major factor and varies greatly depending upon a wind generator’s design. Most wind generators along the Columbia can produce about 1-2.5 megawatts of power and can cost more than $1 million.

Wind-generated power costs between 4.5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour. The Department of Energy is working with corporations and utilities to drop that cost to about 3 cents per kilowatt hour by 2010. Currently, hydroelectric power rates in Seattle run about 4 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Nelson is the coordinator for the Wind Working Group, funded by the Department of Energy. This group includes utilities, corporations and individuals interested in developing wind power.

In the Pullman and Spokane areas, Avista Utilities is offering homeowners and businesses the opportunity to buy wind power. Currently, businesses can purchase wind power in 55 kilowatt-hour (kWh) blocks, with each block costing one dollar. With the “Buck-A-Block” offering, the cost per kWh is in addition to the normal rate paid, and supports the development of wind-generated electricity.

Washington incentives
Washington is the first state to pass a renewable energy law using production-based incentives. But other states — such as California, New Jersey and New York — have implemented capacity-based incentives. These require the states or utilities to pay an up-front rebate for the cost of a solar PV system.

The weakness of that incentive, said Nelson, is that the entire rebate is handed out at once with no assurance that the equipment will continue to operate; there is no incentive for the owner to maintain solar capabilities.

For the future, Nelson sees plenty to keep renewable energy researchers busy. “We need more research in a multitude of disciplines,” he said, “from looking into the physics of solar electricity to architectural detail to bird migration studies regarding the placement of wind turbines.”

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