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Walla Walla-area community power project in early stages November 19, 2009

A Walla Walla University professor is building a coalition to help bring solar power into wider use.

WWU physics professor Frederic Liebrand is excited about a goal he’s about to reach. He has been working toward making Walla Walla and its three colleges the center of a transformation in the way we obtain energy.

For nearly a year Liebrand has been focusing on a project to engage the entire community in a renewable energy production program.

The project builds on work done elsewhere in the state by energy pioneers such as the city of Ellensburg and its resource manager, Bill Nystedt. Liebrand seeks to establish a community solar project in Walla Walla, not only to decrease our energy dependence on foreign oil, but also to help the environment in a way that builds the economic base of the Valley and supports higher education for residents.

“The community approach allows us to tackle head-on the obstacles facing renewable energy,” Liebrand said. “They include high up-front cost, long pay-back periods, lack of consumer know-how and qualified installers and possible harm to the aesthetics of the Valley from the installations.”

So what is it? A community solar project is a state-recognized organization that allows participants who wish to help develop renewable energy production to pool their resources. While participants may track individual ownership, their properties share a common centralized location with economies of scale in installation, operation and maintenance. Additionally, the economic benefits of the production are passed back to the participants with little or no effort on their part. A law passed in May gives participants twice the state production incentives that homeowners can achieve.

A power utility not only receives state incentives for building capacity, but it also has the ability to sell bonds and amortize costs over decades. The incentives allow a more level playing ground for individuals, and with the new state law, the payback period for community projects is half as long as for individuals. Assuming all equipment is manufactured within the state, the production incentives pay at rates of up to $1.08 per kilowatt-hour for community projects. And the incentives last until 2020.

Liebrand’s goal is to install solar energy systems on the flat rooftops public and college buildings have throughout the area.

“Good design allows the energy production to be essentially invisible, which removes any aesthetic concerns,” Liebrand said.

The colleges and universities play an important role as well. Their nonprofit status allows them to bring in participation not only from community members and businesses, but also from alumni and out-of-state corporations that wish to donate to any of the three area schools: Walla Walla University, Whitman College and Walla Walla Community College.

“In essence, we hope to bring outside money into the valley to help build our own infrastructure, and both federal and state law makes that attractive to all parties,” Liebrand said. Faculty members Bob Carson at Whitman College and Steve May at WWCC have joined in support of the program’s development.

There are additional ways that college participation can enhance the program over other community projects.

“A person purchasing an entire system should qualify for the 30 percent federal investment tax credit. After a required holding period, they are then able to donate the system to the school for a charitable donation,” Liebrand said. “Participants interested in charity receive greater returns from their work than they would otherwise.”

All charitable donations to the project are currently slated to be used to fund scholarships for area students, keeping the money inside the valley to help future generations. Liebrand is currently in talks with state Department of Revenue representatives to try to ensure the most favorable rules for the state incentives possible.

Installing solar panels could also provide technical career training to area students. Liebrand’s idea is to have students do the installation work themselves as part of a proposed supervised training program.

As of now, the project has passed an initial legal review and received cautious enthusiasm from each of the area campuses.

“The state law requires that the project be owned either by a utility or a state municipality,” explains Liebrand. “That’s our next step. I’m in talks with a number of municipal organizations that share an interest in not only housing the project, but also in participating by having their public space used for energy production as well.”

Once ownership is determined, and with state rules finalized by January, Liebrand hopes to have a project ready to present.

“It is well accepted that our current national energy structure is neither optimal nor sustainable,” Liebrand said. “Correcting this problem need not be disruptive to the economy or place large burdens on the individual. That is the purpose of this project.”

WWU physics professor Frederic Liebrand is excited about a goal he’s about to reach. He has been working toward making Walla Walla and its three colleges the center of a transformation in the way we obtain energy.

For nearly a year Liebrand has been focusing on a project to engage the community in a renewable energy production program.

“The community approach allows us to tackle head-on the obstacles facing renewable energy,” Liebrand said. “They include high up-front cost, long pay-back periods, lack of consumer know-how and qualified installers and possible harm to the aesthetics of the Valley from the installations.”

By BECKY ST. CLAIR, Walla Walla Union Bulletinhttp://www.union-bulletin.com/articles/2009/11/19/local_news/091119local06solar.txt

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