Walking On Sunshine

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Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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.

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Ross Anderson is a founding member of the Rainshadow Journal collective. He retired to Port Townsend after 30 years of journalism at the Seattle Times.

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