Solar panels to reduce energy bills for Merritt Manor tenants

·3 min read

Residents of Merritt Manor in Olympia should soon see their energy bills drop by about $250 per year.

That’s because the roof of this low-income apartment building on Martin Way was recently outfitted with 324 solar panels, which are expected to provide about one third of the building’s total energy.

“We are really proud to have the opportunity to support low-income Washingtonians with clean energy,” said Mason Rolph, president of Olympia Community Solar, which won a $341,732 grant from the state Department of Commerce to purchase the panels and hire a contractor to install them at no cost to the building’s owners or the 82 households who live there.

Energy bills are can be a hardship for low-income tenants, who often live in older buildings that are less energy-efficient, a phenomenon advocates call “energy burden.” Although the solar industry in Washington is thriving, access to clean energy is largely limited to wealthy homeowners – which is part of what inspired Rolph to find ways that more people could get involved in solar energy production.

“The problem with that is that it only works for homeowners that have a nice sunny rooftop, money to install solar, access and wealth,” Rolph said. “And that leaves out anybody who rents their home, people who live in multifamily housing, it leaves out people without the financial resources to fund a [solar] system or get a loan for a system.”

Olympia Community Solar started in 2018 and has orchestrated several community solar projects locally, including atop the Hands On Children’s Museum and Olympia Farmers Market. For those, individuals could buy into the project in increments of $300, which would get refunded as the panels began producing energy.

“This was a unique project,” said Kirk Haffner, president of South Sound Solar, who noted it was the only the second multifamily apartment building in Olympia where his company has installed solar panels.

One of the challenges with putting solar systems on apartment buildings is that most tenants have their own electrical meter, but energy companies will only “credit” a maximum of two meters per property for extra power generated. That means that extra energy produced by solar panels cannot be returned to the grid.

Rolph and Haffner came up with a solution for Merritt Manor: They consolidated all 82 meters into two “master” meters. The upgrade cost an extra $45,000, but will save residents from having to pay their utility company a monthly fee to rent the meter.

“Without this grant, it’s not possible for any multifamily housing to afford to go solar in that way,” Rolph said.

Rolph said that governments in other states have adopted policies that make it easier for community solar projects to distribute their benefits to multiple dispersed customers in the form of credits on their electric bills. Solar advocates have been pushing for a law change in Washington to enable this process, referred to as “virtual net metering,” which energy companies have largely opposed.

Meanwhile, Olympia Community Solar is busy on a new project which will install solar panels on the roofs at Quixote Village, a tiny house village for people experiencing homelessness. The organization secured a $78,000 grant from the city of Olympia last November that will fund part of that project.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting