Sunny Boise Proving to Be a Good Place for Solar

Having developed 11 megawatts of solar power since 2009 as a result of its feed-in tariff program, Gainesville, Florida is a leader in per capita installed solar energy capacity.

While Gainesville’s progress is impressive, other small cities and towns are also making strides of their own, as detailed in Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up: Profiles in City-Led Energy Innovation:

  • Knoxville, Tennessee used a $200,000 Solar Cities grant from the US Department of Energy to leverage $250,000 and take the community from just under 15 kilowatts of solar energy capacity to two megawatts.
  • Fort Collins, Colorado partnered with New Belgium Brewery and others to leverage a 200-kilowatt installation on the brewery’s roof as an anchor project of FortZED, a groundbreaking net-zero district. The installation is projected to reduce the company’s peak electrical load by 16 percent and its total energy use by 3 percent.
  • Solarize Pendleton and Hillsboro Solar Advantage are among the well-known Oregon examples that took advantage of both federal and state energy tax credits, as well as a partnership with the Energy Trust of Oregon and locally-based SolarWorld, to develop robust solar programs.
  • The Long Island Green Homes program has taken an “efficiency first, renewables second” approach by making ENERGY STAR certification a criterion for participating in its solar installation program.
  • Bainbridge Island, Washington launched a Solarize program on the heels of its successful RePower Bainbridge program for residential energy efficiency.
  • The Community Energy Challenge in Bellingham, WA has helped add solar to businesses that started first with deep energy upgrades, including the 106 year-old North Fork Brewery and the Mountain Veterinary Hospital.

Perhaps less known is the work underway in Boise, Idaho, where installed solar capacity increased to two megawatts as of 2011, and is nearing three megawatts in 2012.  Featured on Elemental Idaho (a program of Radio Boise and Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment) on August 6, 2012, Boise’s residential rooftop solar has been on the rise for a decade.

Inspired by Bob Johnstone’s book Switching to Solar, local Boise resident Reid Burkholder decided to install solar on his rooftop.  Working with Idaho Power’s renewable energy specialist Scott Gates, Burkholder said, made it easy. Gates helps electricity customers through the process of net metering, a utility program that pays customers for their generation of renewable energy.

As Gates described, interested customers can purchase solar kits at a number of mainstream retailers, and an application form for interconnections is available online from Idaho Power here.  Some considerations, according to Gates:

  • Although the program does not discourage residents from doing it themselves, Idaho Power does require certain safety and interconnection standards, and having a professional installer is highly recommended. Dealer names and contact information can be found at the Idaho Office of Energy Resources website here.
  • Residents are advised to get their homes inspected early to review safety factors, such as grounding.
  • Any needed upgrades to the grid are at the customer’s expense.
  • An inverter is necessary to turn direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC).
  • An average Boise home uses just over 1,000 kilowatt-hours per month, or 35 kilowatt-hours per day, and it takes roughly a 7-8 kilowatt system to offset that usage. After the federal tax credit was applied to an $18,000 system, Burkholder found that he paid $12,600 out of his own pocket—on par with a motorboat or a four-runner, he said on the August 6 radio show.

Financial incentives from the federal government certainly help. Perhaps most positively for Boise residents, according to Idaho Power’s Gates, the utility is promoting residential rooftop solar projects, because 1) they do not require utilities to build new generation or transmission, 2) they are efficiently located at points of demand, and 3) solar supply lines up well with peak demand for grid electricity, thus alleviating upward pressure on transmission capacity caused by massive mid-afternoon peaks.

Solar energy is rapidly becoming a consumer’s market, and not only because prices have gone down. Different types of solar technologies are being commercialized, making them more efficient and able to be integrated into a building. Improvements in supplementary products, such as inverters and attachments, are making the process a lot more “plug-and-play,” said John Gardner, Director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies’ Energy Efficiency Research Institute at Boise State University, on the Radio Boise show.

As Gardner also pointed out, rooftop solar does not automatically mean going off the grid entirely.  Getting completely off-grid requires expensive storage to provide electricity during the off-hours of nighttime. Net metering, as offered by Idaho Power, offers a practical in-between option.

Moreover, Boise resident Burkholder told listeners, only part of a household energy budget is addressed by rooftop solar. The other part is reducing how much you use.  In his home, Burkholder has made use of an inexpensive “Kill-a-Watt” electricity usage monitor to measure the energy consumption of each of his appliances.  Getting to zero has become somewhat of a game in his home, he said, and hanging clothes on a line in lieu of using an energy-hogging electric clothes dryer is an easy option in Boise because of the dry climate.

Not everyone in the City of Trees will find that solar makes financial—or aesthetic—sense.  Some homeowners may already have low electric bills because of heavy tree canopy that provides cooling shade in the hot Boise summers, and chopping down trees to allow sunlight to reach rooftop solar panels would not be cost-effective or energy-saving. However, for Boise residents who are solar-ready good options are available and supportive utility staff at Idaho Power can provide guidance on planning, installation, and maintenance of arrays and electrical equipment.

Elizabeth Willmott's picture

former New Energy Cities Program Manager

, Climate Solutions

Elizabeth served Climate Solutions as program manager for the New Energy Cities program, working with cities to help them meet their carbon reduction goals through innovative programs and policies. She most recently authored The Urban Clean Energy Revolution, a detailed compendium of urban climate solutions worldwide (also published in segments as the Low-Carbon Cities blog series), and Breaking Down Barriers to Deep Energy Efficiency in King County, a briefing paper on how to overcome obstacles to deep home energy efficiency. She also co-authored Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up, a July 2012 report on small and medium-sized cities around the U.S. that are demonstrating leadership in local clean energy innovation.

Elizabeth knows and loves local government. As lead author of the World Bank’s 2011 climate change adaptation guide for cities in developing countries, co-author of King County’s 2007 adaptation guidebook with ICLEI and the University of Washington, climate change aide to former King County Executive Ron Sims, and project manager of the first King County Climate Plan in 2007, Elizabeth brings a deep and wide background in community climate planning to the New Energy Cities team.

The program’s focus on "carbon math" also bears Elizabeth’s signature. She first found religion in Excel spreadsheets as the Recovery Act performance and accountability lead for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, overseeing the results of $13.6 billion in grants to cities and communities around the U.S.  Today her data-driven approach is most obvious in New Energy Cities’ energy maps and carbon wedge graphics.

Outside of work Elizabeth leaves ample time for gardening, biking, and movie-watching with her husband Andy. She holds a double degree in biology and Chinese language from Williams College and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School.