Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: The quest to make Tacoma’s solar future more equitable

The south-facing garage of Dohn and Chris Swedberg has 25 Silicon Energy solar panels. The roof plane on their house that faces the Tacoma Narrows has another 24 (not pictured). The couple has maxed out their $5,000 annual incentive payment for the power they generate.
The south-facing garage of Dohn and Chris Swedberg has 25 Silicon Energy solar panels. The roof plane on their house that faces the Tacoma Narrows has another 24 (not pictured). The couple has maxed out their $5,000 annual incentive payment for the power they generate. Staff file

City Councilman Marty Campbell, who represents the East Side and Tacoma’s Lincoln District, is looking 10 or 20 years into the future.

And what he sees, he says, looks sunny.

More specifically, Campbell sees a Tacoma where houses throughout the city are increasingly equipped with solar panels — reducing their reliance on electricity from Tacoma Public Utilities. He believes as many as one in three homes, in some areas, will be equipped with solar panels in the not-too-distant future, as the technology becomes more accessible.

That will be a good thing, he says, but it comes with a caveat. Given what he views as inevitable growth in residential solar power, he wants to make sure that all Tacomans — and not just the wealthier ones, with the ability to foot the significant upfront costs of solar installation — will be able to get in on the energy independence and savings.

“Ultimately, I want to kind of level the playing field,” Campbell says, “so that someone who doesn’t have necessarily the income or the savings to be able to invest in solar has a pathway to investing in solar in their own homes.”

Campbell has put forward a resolution, scheduled to be voted on during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, directing the Tacoma Public Utilities board to “develop a plan to increase the use of residential solar power in the City.” Under Campbell’s resolution, TPU would be asked to address “economic inequality,” and ensure “an equitable increase in the number of residential solar users from all income levels.”

If approved, TPU would deliver its plan to the City Council no later than Oct. 1.

The idea may seem bold and even a wee bit wishful. But it’s actually a compromise of sorts, Campbell says.

That’s because Kess Smith, a consultant and self-described “solar enthusiast” with Progressive Strategies Northwest who has worked on Campbell’s council campaigns, has been kicking around the idea of a ballot initiative that would go much further.

Smith told me solar energy is exciting for many reasons, especially since it’s “getting better and cheaper.” The state’s solar incentive program, which he currently takes advantage of for solar panels he installed on his roof in 2015, has “worked extremely well,” but it’s “phasing out, and by my assessment the Legislature is unlikely to renew it.”

“That’s where my idea for an initiative comes in,” Smith explained. “It would require TPU to cover the gap and then expand the program even more so that Tacoma residents — and especially those on a fixed income — don’t have to worry about massive rate hikes from TPU for the portion of energy they produce.”

Describing his initiative idea as “ambitious,” he put the price tag for TPU in the neighborhood of $3.5 million annually.

Ambitious is a good word for it.

Initially, Smith said, he was targeting next year’s ballot for a solar initiative. He believes gathering the necessary signatures wouldn’t be difficult, and the issue would garner bipartisan support.

For his part, Campbell likes the idea of addressing equity in solar installation, but thought there might be a better, shall we say less ambitious, path forward.

“I said, ‘That’s pretty intriguing, but maybe we can do something where we just work with what we already have,’ ” Campbell said of his communication with Smith and his decision to attempt to enlist TPU in the conversation, rather than force the utility’s hand.

“I don’t think we need a mandate to make a smart choice when it comes to solar,” the councilman said.

TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason said the public utility is going to “hold off on commenting on the resolution,” until after May 9, when the TPU board and the City Council are scheduled to discuss “solar economics” during a study session. Mum is also the word on any potential ballot initiative, she said.

Gleason did note, however, that “most of (TPU’s) power supply comes from renewable, carbon-free hydroelectricity.” The utility owns seven dams “that supply about 45 percent of our customers’ needs,” she said, and purchases the rest from the Bonneville Power Administration, “whose supply is also mainly hydropower.”

For the time being, Smith says he’s taking a wait-and-see approach. He acknowledged that Campbell’s resolution doesn’t go nearly as far as he’d like, but if it passes he’ll likely get behind the plan.

“My best guess is that TPU will put together a much slimmer plan than what my idea would do, but I’m not a believer in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he says.

Whatever happens, it’s nice to see Tacoma trying to prevent a solar disparity than having to address one after it develops.

“For me, this is the 20-year plan,” Campbell says. “I want to make sure that 20 years down the road, we don’t have major inequities in where we see solar implementation.”