Workshop held on OPALCO solar panels | The Journal of the San Juan Islands – Journal of the San Juan Islands

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On March 26, OPALCO held an informational meeting over Zoom about the community solar Bailer Hill Microgrid project. The meeting included a presentation given by Russel Guerry, OPALCO’s Manager of Operations and Engineering, and touched on different topics such as why the Bailer Hill location was chosen for the solar array, agrivoltaics, meaning agricultural production underneath direct or adjacent solar panels, of the property, and different benefits of the project. Around 80 attendees joined the Zoom meeting and had the opportunity to ask questions about the project and receive answers at the end.

The project is part of Community Solar, OPALCO’s initiative to provide affordable access to clean, alternative power. Co-op members can subscribe to the project and benefit from the energy produced from the panels by receiving energy credits on their power bill based on the amount of shares purchased. OPALCO’s first Community Solar project, the Decatur Island Microgrid, is located at the Decatur substation. The 3.6 acres of solar panels produces around 570,000-kilowatt hours annually, with approximately 270 OPALCO members who own shares of the project as of January 2024. There is also one-megawatt, 2.6 MWh large-scale battery storage.

In 2019, the Washington state legislature known as the Clean Energy Transformation Act went into effect, mandating that “utilities must supply Washington customers with electricity that is 100% renewable or non-emitting by 2045,” according to the Washington State Department of Commerce. Because of this, OPALCO expects less reliability from their mainland provider during the decarbonization process as they focus their efforts on the switch to more renewable resources. When looking at available options to provide more reliable energy during possible blackouts, having a microgrid on Bailer Hill would be connected to OPALCO’s circuit that feeds into the town of Friday Harbor, Peace Island Medical Center, the SJI Fire Department and the Friday Harbor Airport.

At the March 26 meeting, there were a multitude of questions asked by the attendees during the Q&A. The most frequent inquiries and concerns revolved around the timeline, the project’s impact on the environment, potential fire hazards, and why the Bailer Hill location was selected for the project.

According to Krista Bouchey, OPALCO Assistant Manager of Communications, the timeline is dependent on how the permitting process continues.

“This property is in an area that qualifies for a Conditional Use Permit. This is an extensive process that requires a hearing with the Hearing Examiner in addition to a variety of environmental studies and detailed plans for the project. All that information is public information as part of our permit application. Residents can make comments ahead of the hearing (the deadline will have passed when this is published) or at the hearing on April 24,” said Bouchey. She explained there are still several more steps before the project can break ground, so the timeline is still unknown.

In terms of environmental impacts of the project, Bouchey mentioned that OPALCO conducted many studies such as a National Environmental Policy Act review, a study on the glare produced from the solar panels, and a visual impact study. According to Bouchey, all of the studies came back with a green light to proceed with the project.

Additionally, OPALCO officials also met with the San Juan County Conservation District to help develop the farm plan, which aims to improve the property’s condition as agricultural land and allow for agrivoltaics, or the use of the same land for solar and agricultural products. OPALCO has partnered with a local farmer to have his sheep graze on the project’s property and there have been sheep grazing off and on there since OPALCO purchased the land in 2020. OPALCO worked with the farmer to create a plan for improvements to the Bailer Hill property to allow for better grazing, including the removal of weeds like buttercups that are harmful to the sheep, potable water, fencing, and making height adjustments to the panels.

Another concern brought forth by the public was the potential for fire or dangerous chemicals from the project. Bouchey explained that some of the concern came from a video that OPALCO published to their website of Guerry installing batteries in the Decatur Island Microgrid while wearing an arc suit, a kind of specialized protective clothing used by staff who work with higher voltage electricity.

“When you install the batteries, you need to wear one of these protective suits because there is a high amount of electricity. It’s not like a hazmat suit, it’s just to protect the person wearing it when they’re dealing with high-voltage electricity in the unlikely event they came into contact with an electrical current. Lineworkers wear similar gear,” said Bouchey. “There are no hazardous chemicals; solar panels don’t have leakage and the batteries are stored in containers.”

As for fire safety, Bouchey said that OPALCO has extensive fire mitigation plans related to battery storage facilities and will offer training to the local fire department. In addition, OPALCO will have remote control ability to turn the batteries off from afar.

Perhaps one of the most frequently repeated questions during the meeting related to the location of the project and why it was chosen over other alternatives. Some community members wondered why OPALCO was choosing to put solar panels on land designated for agriculture and not the rooftops, such as on buildings in town. Bouchey explained that agricultural land is one of the few areas on the island that can receive a Conditional Use Permit, and the Bailer Hill location also checked additional boxes for the microgrid, such as receiving plenty of sunlight and is close to OPALCO’s electrical infrastructure, making it easy to tie into the transmission system that feeds into Friday Harbor, providing power to key places like the hospital and the fire station.

Bouchey also explained that it can be problematic to use private property, such as a business’ rooftop, for a public utility, as a variety of issues can arise such as a roof that needs to be replaced, getting insured, and economically it doesn’t pencil out. However, OPALCO does offer incentives for businesses to put solar panels on their property.

“We’ve received a grant that we’ve had in the past for commercial energy audits, and then once you do those audits, there’s funding where you can get up to 50% of the solar project paid for. This is one way we can support businesses who are interested in solar energy,” said Bouchey.

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