More than $156 million for solar panels coming to WA communities

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Climate Lab is a Seattle Times initiative that explores the effects of climate change in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The project is funded in part by The Bullitt Foundation, Jim and Birte Falconer, Mike and Becky Hughes, University of Washington and Walker Family Foundation, and its fiscal sponsor is the Seattle Foundation.

Washington state will receive more than $156 million to launch programs to provide rooftop solar and other forms of solar energy to people with lower incomes and on the front lines of climate change.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a total of $7 billion in grants Monday from the agency’s Solar for All grant competition. The program is funded by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

In its grant application, the state Department of Commerce proposed to create several new programs, for single-family homeowners, community solar projects, multifamily affordable housing properties and tribal nations.

The state plans to further define eligibility requirements and launch its programs by summer 2025. The funds should be fully disbursed by 2029, according to the Commerce Department.

Under EPA rules, funding from the grant to the state is intended to serve low-income and disadvantaged communities. Disadvantaged communities are defined in the federal Climate and Economic Justice mapping tool; low-income is generally defined as households with incomes at or below the greater of 80% area median income and 200% of the federal poverty level, or properties providing affordable housing, according to the Commerce Department.

Standing in the sun-drenched courtyard of the Seattle Housing Authority’s Hinoki building Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee told The Seattle Times the infusion of federal cash was “heaven sent.”

Atop the 136-unit building were rows of solar panels, enough to power up about 10% to 15% of the building’s common areas and reduce the building’s operating costs. The community helped shape the design of the building, and one of the many values they identified was environmental stewardship, said Rod Brandon of the Seattle Housing Authority.

Washington residents who have received solar funding under previous state programs have shared stories of their electricity bills being reduced, and in some cases eliminated, Commerce Director Mike Fong said.

In addition to the installation of the panels, Fong said the money will help create jobs, workforce training programs like those at Northwest Indian College, and help Indigenous communities develop energy projects.

“We are punching above our weight class as a state in terms of securing federal funding,” Fong said. “And we’re going to do right by all Washingtonians.”

In Washington, the federal dollars will complement an existing $100 million that lawmakers invested from the state’s sale of carbon pollution allowances under the Climate Commitment Act.

The state money has been allocated to individual grant programs already, said Amy Wheeless, the federal funding and program alignment manager for the Commerce Department’s energy division. Some awards may be announced in the next few months.

“We’re attacking this problem on both ends,” Inslee said of the state’s landmark climate policy. “We’re making investments helping people get new technologies like solar and heat pumps and insulation and electric school buses, but the Climate Commitment Act … limits pollution directly. It has a direct cap on toxic pollution.”

Both people and power systems could benefit from more distributed energy generation, said KC Golden, who serves on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

With more electricity demand and potential disruptions in power supply from extreme weather events, it’s good to have more sources of energy located closer to the people that they’re serving, Golden said.

“It’s gonna get more and more beneficial and helpful and important to center more of the action on the customer side of the meter,” Golden said. “It gives customers more control over their energy usage and their bills, and we’re facing a very accelerated time frame driven by the climate crisis to massively upgrade our electric power supply and our whole electric power infrastructure.”

The council’s 2021 Plan Resource Strategy called for the Northwest to build at least 3,500 megawatts of renewable resources by 2027, though it identified that jurisdictions pursuing ambitious decarbonization or electrification may need to build more. The region is already well on its way to achieving that goal, having built around 3,200 megawatts of new renewables since the plan.

The 60 selected grant applicants nationwide include 49 state-level awards totaling about $5.5 billion, six awards for tribal nations totaling over $500 million and five multistate awards totaling about $1 billion, according to the EPA. The grants are estimated to provide 900,000 households with access to distributed solar energy.

The grants are estimated to save U.S. households more than $350 million in electricity costs annually — about $400 per household — and cut more than 30 million metric tons of carbon pollution over the next 25 years.

There is a commitment from all the selected applicants to deliver at least a 20% utility bill savings to households served by the programs, according to EPA officials.

The Biden administration also announced Monday the launch of the American Climate Corps, an initiative modeled after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. People can apply for opportunities to work in clean energy, climate resilience and conservation — including several in Washington — at ClimateCorps.gov.

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