The number of people installing solar panels on their homes has tripled in the past three years, to more than 300 from around 100, according to the Snohomish County Public Utility District.
A good part of that growth came in the first half of this year, with 60 installations already, compared to 75 for all of last year.
Though the number is still very small, "it's kind of looking like an exponential growth curve," said Leslie Moynihan, manager of customer renewables for the PUD.
One reason is probably a reduction in price, PUD officials said. The cost of installing a solar power array has dropped 25 percent to 40 percent in the past three years, Moynihan said.
The average-size residential system of 5.5 kilowatts costs about $24,750 now compared to $33,000 three years ago, based on Moynihan's figures. That doesn't include a 30 percent federal tax credit and other incentives. Some customers can save more, depending on the system they buy.
The PUD has three ways of knowing who has installed solar power. The utility offers incentives for solar installations and administers solar energy credits offered by the state. Also, the PUD offers "net metering," in which solar power users get credit for power they produce but don't use that flows back into the grid in the summer.
As a result, customers can either carry the bonus forward to cut their electric bills in the winter, or they can periodically receive a check from the PUD.
"Some folks are getting ready to cash out multi-thousand dollar credits on their accounts," Moynihan said.
Government incentives make the difference, she said.
The Snohomish County PUD offers customers an incentive of either $500 per kilowatt capacity installed, up to $2,500 for residences or $10,000 for businesses, or a 2.9 percent loan of up to $14,000 to cover the cost of a new system.
The state of Washington pays 15 cents per kilowatt hour produced for systems with out-of-state components and 54 cents per kilowatt hour for systems with equipment made in-state.
Mike McEachern of Mukilteo had a system installed on his house last fall.
He paid regular bills during the winter, but this spring and summer he's been racking up credits. He's about to get a check from the PUD for around $500 for the net power difference since he began using his system.
"I'm not paying for power, number one, and number two, I'm getting a check to produce power," McEachern said.
He paid about $28,000 for his system. With the federal tax credit and $2,100 from the PUD, the net cost was under $20,000, he said.
"In seven plus years, I could break even," he said.
McEachern received about 10 percent off the cost of his installation by participating in a group discount program.
Under the "Solarize" program, residents pool together to receive discounts on installations.
The PUD works with Northwest Seed, a Seattle nonprofit organization that promotes green power, to get the groups started and sort through the options.
Last year, 23 homeowners on Camano Island and several more in Mukilteo took advantage of the program.
This is another explanation for the recent growth in solar power -- word of mouth, PUD spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.
"A lot of people are seeing it on friends' and neighbors' houses," he said.
Solar power now produces about 2 megawatts of energy in the PUD's service area, still less than 1 percent of the utility's power supply.
"But it's growing," Neroutsos said.
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