What would be the largest solar power plant in the US is slated to go up — not in the Arizona desert or sunny Southern California – but just 90 miles southeast of cloudy Seattle.
The Teanaway Solar Reserve has been working its way through the permitting process for a year or so now. The project is being headed up by local businessman Howard Trott, for many years investment manager for wireless pioneer Craig McCaw. Wednesday night, the local planning authorities in Kittitas County, Washington gave the go-ahead to site the project on a south-facing slope a few miles outside the town of Cle Elum, pop.1,755.
Will it be big? Oh yes, it will.
You’re looking at an estimated 400,000 solar panels situated on about 145 acres of south-facing slope that was previously logged.
Once online, the 75-megawatt project should make enough juice to power about 45,000 homes.
Aside from its sheer size – and the fact that it’s going up in a part of the country not known for abundant sun — the Teanaway project is interesting in that it’s being built in the near-absence of the sort of government incentives that have supercharged solar development in Europe, especially in Germany and Spain. (Spain’s debt crisis just forced the country to cut way back on its solar subsidies, but at this point, about 90 percent of the installed solar capacity in the world is in those two countries).
When I spoke last fall to project spokesman Matt Steuerwalt, the Legislature was considering several measures that would have given Teanaway a boost, including a European-style feed-in tariff that would have guaranteed a premium price for the project’s solar power.
“We would love to capture, y’know, 54 cents a kilowatt hour for 75 megawatts,” Steuerwalt told me. “That’s the kind of incentive that’s been in place in Germany and Spain … We’re not counting on the feed-in tariff being in place since we don’t have one. And we still think the project will work.”
The feed-in tariff never made it out of the Lege …
Washington State does have generous incentives for residential solar development. If you put panels on your roof, your local utility has to pay you around 15 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s about twice what the utility would normally charge you for that same juice. And if you buy your solar equipment from a Washington manufacturer, the premium gets even sweeter.
But unlike in Europe, these incentives don’t apply to industrial installations. In fact, Teanaway spokeswoman Meagan Walker told me today the only incentive the project expects to be able to benefit from is a sales tax exemption for made-in Washington equipment. Walker says that might save them as much as $10 million.
Of course, an incentive Teanaway will benefit from isn’t a direct subsidy; it’s the voter-approved Initiative 937. I-937 was passed by Washington voters in 2006. It requires utilities in the state to get at least 15 percent of their power from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2020. With that imperative, utilities in the state are hungry for reliable sources of green juice. And while distributed generation – small amounts of power coming from residential rooftop arrays – is a laudable goal, that’s not likely in the short term to provide the quantities of electricity needed to meet the I-937 mandate.
Questions have been raised about whether the Teanaway project will ultimately pencil out. Concerns about its location in the less-than-sun-drenched Pacific Northwest and the rudimentary state of the kind of “smart-grid” required by renewables on that scale are among them.
But Trott and his investors are betting a lot of money — reportedly more than $300 million — that the time is ripe for a project like this to stand on its own feet without the crutch of European-style subsidies.
Whether they’re right, only time will tell.
But wouldn’t it be a kick in the butt if the largest solar success story in the US turned out to be in the rainy Pacific Northwest?