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Panel discussion: Giving businesses incentives to go solar

A 700-square-foot array of 44 solar panels was installed on the roof of Liberty Bay Auto in Poulsbo. The business worked with Washington Solar Incentives on the project. (Photo courtesy Liberty Bay Auto)Rick Lander knows he won’t get many business owners to consider an investment in rooftop solar panels just for the environmental benefits. But pitching a project that also offers financial incentives — tax credits and lower utility bills, as well as some good PR in the bargain — that’s likely to get some attention.

It worked that way at Liberty Bay Auto in Poulsbo, a high-end used car business where most of the electricity is now generated by a 700-square-foot array of 44 solar panels installed on the roof in December.

“It’s a good thing, a green thing,” said Dean Church, who started the business with his father 25 years ago. But he didn’t jump on the idea the first time he was contacted by Lander, president of Washington Solar Incentives. Church had his general manager check out the details.

“After doing some research, we found there’s huge benefit to it,” he said, meaning benefits for his bottom line. “The return on investment is good; a five-year return when you spend $60,000 to put something on our roof, that’s not too bad.

“The tax incentives are huge. I think if the tax incentives were not there, there would be a lot of people shy away from it, at least businesses.”

Lander knows that, too. That’s why he’s encouraging business owners to consider investing in solar this year when they can take advantage of a combination of lower equipment costs and a bundle of incentives that won’t last indefinitely.

“We were doing community (mostly residential) solar projects in 2011 and it was a great investment for people, but the timing was wrong,” Lander said. “It required a lot of investment and the economy was still slow.”

So he shifted gears and worked a couple years for a large energy-efficiency company in Seattle, and took a course in solar applications at Shoreline Community College.

“During that time the in-state manufactured solar panels that qualify for a generous state incentive came down in price about 36 percent,” he said. “And the state incentives and utility grants stayed intact. So it became a real interesting economic model for a business to consider as an investment.”

His company’s installations use panels made by Silicon Energy, which a few years ago was the only manufacturer in the state. Those units are considerably more expensive than mass-produced panels from big foreign companies, but Lander said they’re higher quality, and using domestically made panels qualifies a project for larger state incentives. And now there’s another in-state solar company, Bellingham-based Itek Energy, which was co-founded by Bainbridge Island developer Kelly Samson.

Washington Solar Incentives (wash-solar.com) concentrates on marketing to businesses now rather than residential retrofits. Lander is in discussions with Kitsap Bank about possible installation of up to nine solar panels on the canopy over the drive-thru lanes at the East Bremerton branch, which is being replaced with a completely new building that will feature advanced technology inside and out.

“As we’ve become a more sustainable organization, solar is something we want to look at,” Kitsap Bank CEO Tony George said, and Lander’s company is one the contractors they’re considering for the project.

He said the expected payback over five to seven years makes sense for a solar installation at the new branch, but there’s more to it than dollars and cents.

“The other thing we like about it is it’s going to be very visible,” George said. “We’re also looking at putting some kind of monitor in the lobby to show how much energy is being produced, so people can see it.”

Companies like to show their green credentials to the public, especially when energy-saving measures they implement are reducing operating costs as well.

And utility companies promote energy conservation with rebate programs because they’d rather not have to build expensive new power plants. Lander said the current utility rebate for a commercial solar project is 54 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity produced by the system, up to $5,000 a year.

“Plus you get accelerated depreciation,” he said. “You can write 100 percent of this thing off in five years.”

The solar energy from the installation at Liberty Bay Auto should provide most of the power needed for the showroom and service shop, though it won’t likely produce a surplus that sends power back into the grid.

“We’ll never get to the point where it goes backward, but we’re going to save a lot,” Church said.

“These guys were great to work with, Rick and his team,” he added, noting the extensive modifications needed on the roof of the building, which originally was a lumber yard and has been there at the north tip of Liberty Bay for more than a century. “We had to add support pieces to 80 trusses.”

Installation challenges are not a big stumbling block to Lander, a former general contractor who hopes to see a boom in commercial solar this year and beyond.

“I’m really passionate that we’ve got to find alternative energies and save energy,” said Lander, a former general contractor. “The only way we’re going do it is if we have an economic model that makes sense. That’s the only way we’ll really get a lot of solar up.

“Now it makes economic sense, so the business world should consider it as an investment opportunity.”

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