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Here Comes the Sun? Seattle Aquarium’s Community Solar Project

Seattle may not be the first location that springs to mind when you think of solar panels, but the Seattle Aquarium and energy providers Seattle City Light are hoping to challenge this perception with an innovative new community solar project.  And they’re inviting the rest of the City to be a part of it!

Due for completion this Fall, Seattle City Light is installing an array of solar panels, manufactured in Washington state, on the Seattle Aquarium’s roof.  

Both the Aquarium and Seattle City Light have high goals for environmental stewardship so little wonder that a solar panel installation would appeal to both parties.  However, a particularly interesting and innovative aspect of this project is that Seattle City Light’s customers will be able to buy into the installation and benefit from the electricity produced.  This presents interesting new opportunities to educate and engage the public about steps each of us can take on behalf of the environment.

Blooloop talked to Scott Thomsen, Sr. Strategic Advisor, Communications & Public Relations, Seattle City Light and Seattle Aquarium’s Conservation Manager Mark Plunkett about their exciting new partnership.

Power to the People 

Thomsen explains how the project works: “Some people want to be a part of producing solar electricity, but for a variety of reasons might not be able to install panels at their home or business. They might live in a condo, be surrounded by tall trees or simply not have the money to install a complete system of their own.

“Community Solar is an opportunity for them, and anyone else who is interested, to buy a portion of the output from a set of solar panels that Seattle City Light installs.  Think of it as a solar energy condominium.  You can buy in with just one unit.  You don't have to buy the whole thing.

“Participants receive credit on their electricity bills for their portion of the solar panels' energy production.  Additionally, each year they will receive a financial incentive from the state of Washington for the amount of energy that is produced. Combined, that adds up to $1.15 per kilowatt-hour.  We project that each $150 unit of the Community Solar project will deliver at least that much in electricity and energy production incentives to the owner by the time their contract ends in 2020.”

This will be the second community solar project undertaken by Seattle City Light, the first being a much smaller array on three picnic shelter roofs in Seattle’s Jefferson Park.  The enthusiastic response from the public, with more than 400 customers investing, encouraged Seattle City Light to undertake the second, larger project.  The 1, 850 units available in the aquarium Community Solar project nearly sold out in the first month they were offered. 

Seattle Aquarium LogoInspiring Conservation

Mark Plunkett has been at the Seattle Aquarium for 28 years, of which the last eight have been spent in his current role as Conservation Manager.  The Aquarium’s mission is “inspiring conservation of our marine environment” and the solar project fits into this with both the reduction in carbon footprint and the opportunity to inspire and educate.  

Plunkett says, “We embrace sustainability at the Seattle Aquarium; we feel that it’s an integral part of conservation.”

The Aquarium is currently putting “substantial focus” on ocean acidification as part of its overall conservation strategy.  This has led to a drive to alter its own environmental practices which have an impact on marine chemistry, with an ambitious target to reduce its carbon footprint by 25% by 2020.

“We’re doing the solar project in part because it will eventually save us money but it will also play a small role in our contribution to reduce our carbon footprint, ” explains Plunkett.

Plunkett describes the decision to partner with Seattle City Light as a “logical no brainer”; the scheme is an excellent fit with the Aquarium’s sustainability policy and Seattle City Light also secured grant funding to pay for the project costs of around $300, 000.

A Perfect Match

From Seattle City Light’s point of view, the Seattle Aquarium was an ideal partner.  Thomsen says, “The Seattle Aquarium is a great partner for Community Solar. The Aquarium is in an iconic location along the Seattle waterfront that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.  That provides an opportunity for the project and Aquarium staff to demonstrate how solar works in Seattle and encourage people to consider solar as a potential renewable energy choice.

“The project also fits with the environmental goals of Seattle City Light and the Seattle Aquarium.  In 2005, Seattle City Light became the first US utility to fully offset its greenhouse gas emissions and has maintained that status every year since.  We are committed to providing reliable, low-cost, environmentally responsible electricity to our customers.  Likewise, the Aquarium has a mission of inspiring conservation of the marine environment. It's a perfect match.”

Opportunities to be Engaged 

A key factor in the choice of Seattle Aquarium as a partner for Seattle City Light was the Aquarium’s ability to communicate effectively with the public as a trusted scientific institution.  Plunkett says that Seattle City Light “wanted somewhere that was public, highly visible and committed to conservation.”

Just in terms of public visibility Plunkett says, “We’ve got 800, 000 visitors to the Aquarium a year and hundreds of thousands of others walk by.  247 4×4 solar panels up on our roof are going to be seen!” 

Seattle Aquarium is committed to working with Seattle City Light to communicate and educate as part of their contractual requirements.  Plunkett says, “City Light wanted a project that would benefit the community while also helping the Aquarium.  The Aquarium’s marketing and education departments will be working closely with Seattle City Light to collectively develop communication materials including electronic screens, signage and information on the web.”  

Seattle Aquarium already has expertise in communicating with the public about climate change and ocean acidification.  Members of staff from the Aquarium are in leadership roles in a network of a dozen US zoos and aquariums that are grappling with trying to find the best way to deliver a complex environmental message.  This experience will be brought to bear in the solar project’s communications and education strategy.  Plunkett says, “We are very robust in trying to communicate a very difficult subject, climate change ocean acidification, to our visitors in a way that might interest them and not polarise them politically and depress them, but in fact might show them opportunities to be engaged.”  

Seattle Aquarium and Seattle City Light Community Solar Project

Ambitious Steps 

Looking to the future, the community solar project is just one initiative from the Aquarium’s two year programme of work which Plunkett describes as the “most ambitious steps that we’ve ever taken. 

“The Aquarium has been lucky enough to receive City of Seattle Parks and Recreation Department capital improvement funds.  These projects will help us achieve our carbon footprint reduction target.  There are eleven planned energy measures including replacing energy systems and fitting LED lights throughout the Aquarium.”

Plunkett is confident about the success of the project both in terms of environmental targets and the opportunity to educate and inspire.  He says, “The reason why this is so interesting in Seattle is because people might think that solar power only works in a place like Southern California where there’s lots of sun, but that’s not the case.  With today’s technology solar can work here and even have a reasonable financial payback.  It’s important to communicate that solar can even work in states like Washington.”

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