Solar Power Prospects Under Cloudy Seattle Skies
The new Administration is shifting federal energy policies and that concerns companies, employees, and advocates of solar power. “Sunset for solar incentives? Panel installers worry about industry’s outlook,” Seattle Times, July 1, 2017) quotes one solar CEO on what may be a solar apocalypse for Washington state’s solar industry:
“Solar energy is looking at 2020 as a critical year,” Jeremy Smithson, CEO and founder of Puget Sound Solar, said last week about the scheduled sunset date for state renewable-energy incentive programs designed to make solar more affordable.
[The Seattle Times article was updated: …after the Legislature passed a bill extending the state incentive program to 2030.]
The Seattle Times article comments on costs and subsidies:
Cost remains the biggest barrier for solar. Weather is not actually a problem, with long summer days providing enough sun to make up for rainy winters. Despite increasingly efficient technology and declining costs, most customers in Washington still rely on state and federal incentives to make the substantial cost of installing solar pencil out.
Is it true that “long summer days” in Washington state “make up for rainy winters” for solar here? It’s true that winter days are shorter and summer days longer at 47.6 north latitude (16 hours of sun on the summer solstice!). But it’s also true that days in spring and fall days as well as winter are also often overcast and rainy.
“Cloudiest Cities in America,” reports:
The west coast cities of Portland and Seattle top the list of cloudiest large cities in the United States.
Overall, nine major American cities have solid overcast for more than 180 days a year. Besides the Pacific Northwest, cities with frequent cloudy weather are mainly near the Great Lakes.
Seattle tops the list with 226 days of heavy clouds each year, or about 62%. Portland is next with 222 days of heavy clouds.
Sperlings “Best Places” Climate overview page for Seattle says:
On average, there are 152 sunny days per year in Seattle, Washington.
The Olympic Rain Shadow website which compares the relatively sunny city of Sequim with Seattle reports for 2010-2011 that Seattle had 88 mostly sunny days, 117 partly sunny days, 137 cloudy days, and 23 “dreary days.” (Sequim, in the shadow of the Olympic mountain range, enjoyed 127, 127, 102, and 9).
Rooftop solar installations in Sequim generate significantly more power than those in Seattle. Unfortunately for the solar installation industry, the population of Sequim is under 7,000 while over 700,000 live in Seattle and 3.8 million in Seattle plus suburbs and nearby cities.
Skeptical of solar power subsidies is “Washington’s Solar Subsidies Cost 13.5 Times The Price Of Power Generated,” (Daily Caller, April 14, 2016):
The Washington Policy Center estimates that the solar subsidies will cost the state government $24.7 million a year by 2020 when the program is scheduled to expire. The state government admits the subsidies program cost $7,980,142 in fiscal year 2015.
The subsidy cash isn’t just coming from the state government, as the program is structured so people can also pick up a 30 percent tax credit from the American federal government.
Consumers benefit as the cost of solar power efficiency increases and the cost of panels continues to drop. But solar installation and maintenance costs remain high and continue to be costly to Washington state and federal taxpayers. At least until 2020.
Still, back to the Seattle Times solar climate claim:
Weather is not actually a problem, with long summer days providing enough sun to make up for rainy winters.
Weather is a problem for those of us irritated by Seattle’s many cloudy, rainy, and sometimes dreary days. We benefit however from Seattle moderate temperature. It rarely gets real hot in western Washington (most houses don’t have or need air conditioners, and only one of my neighbors has one). But that reduces the rationale for solar panels further, since they are best at cutting peak power demand by supplying electricity and absorbing heat of the sun on hot afternoons.
Providing power at periods of peak demand is a huge benefit to electric utilities, since it reduces their peak load and highest-cost electricity.
But again, we don’t have much of those hot, hot afternoons in Seattle. The Best Places link above gives the numbers:
The July high is around 75 degrees. The January low is 37. Sperling’s comfort index for Seattle is a 79 out of 100, where a higher score indicates a more comfortable year-around climate. The US average for the comfort index is 54. Our index is based on the total number of days annually within the comfort range of 70-80 degrees, and we also applied a penalty for days of excessive humidity.
So, three cheers for solar power in sunny places where can deliver true cost-savings for consumers and electric utilities.
Here in Seattle I continue to enjoy my solar-powered water fountain. Long summer days benefit this small solar installation. It’s not running this evening even though the sun is shining because of another Seattle solar problem: trees. Lots of lush green trees here. They are wonderful and their shadows shade our homes. But those shadows also stop nearly solar panels from time to time as the sun travels the sky each day.
Here though is picture from another day when the sun was aligned to hit the little solar panel powering the little pump to launch my solar fountain. (Here is a similar model for $89 on Hayneedle.com.)