Andy Cochrane left Kitsap County in the late 1980s after graduating from Port Townsend High School. He returned 15 years later with a vague idea and an aspiration.
“At the time there was a lot of new housing being built,” Cochrane said. “I wanted to have a positive influence on the type of housing that was being built.”
Cochrane started the company Power Trip Energy in 2003 with that still ambiguous goal in mind. Solar energy had always been an attraction of his, Cochrane admitted, but he’d never had the ability or means to utilize it himself.
At first, Cochrane organized solar home tours and other events to educate home-owners on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas about the possibility of using solar energy.
Power Trip Energy made its biggest step in 2004, when Cochrane teamed up with his old high-school friend, Steve Carr, who had become an electrician. With Carr on board, the company took on a new direction — Cochrane and Carr became electrical contractors, installing solar systems for clients around the west sound.
The idea of solar energy in the Pacific Northwest, a place known for its rain and cloud cover, might seem absurd, but Cochrane has spent years dispelling this common misconception.
According to Cochrane, the Pacific Northwest gets 70 percent as much sun as southern California, and in the summer we actually get more thanks to our longer days.
“Germany is the number one solar country per capita in the world, and we get more sun than Germany,” Cochrane said. “If the Germans believe that it is a good idea and they get less sun than we do then it’s a good idea here.”
Now, almost precisely 10 years after the company’s creation, Cochrane and Carr are pushing to bring solar energy to as many people as possible through a program called Solarize Kitsap.
Power Trip said the goal of Solarize Kitsap is to bring affordable solar energy installation to more people through a group purchasing model that helps bring down the cost to each individual.
The program takes advantage of a state sales tax exemption that will be expiring July 1. Right now, the cost of solar installation is completely exempt from the 8.6 percent sales tax.
Cochrane said they want to let as many people know about the exemption before it goes away this summer.
“We’re kind of trying to get the word out, get as many people lined up to take advantage of that before the deadline,” Cochrane said.
To help spread the word, Power Trip is going around the county and offering weekend seminars to get information to people who want to learn more. The first event was held in Silverdale on Jan. 19. Additional events are being held in Kitsap communities through April 13.
Despite the expiring sales tax exemption, solar energy continues to become more and more affordable through government subsidies, technological advancement and increased production volume.
“We’ve seen price decreases of 30, 40 percent in the last few years,” Cochrane said.
The federal government offers a 30 percent income tax credit on the cost of the solar system. Perhaps the biggest financial benefit, however, comes from net metering and state production incentives.
Through net metering, the utilities department monitors the energy produced by a client’s solar array. That client then receives credit from their utilities provider for whatever their array produces.
So if a family’s solar array produces twice the energy they need in August (which Cochrane said is common), they’ll receive credit they can use in winter when their solar array isn’t producing as much energy.
The production incentives program is a voluntary state program for utilities companies that provides a yearly credit to customers for every kWh of electricity produced. The base incentive is 15 cents per kWh, but if the customer’s solar array is manufactured in Washington, the rate jumps dramatically to 54 cents per kWh.
To give an idea for comparison, utilities customers pay around 10 cents for kWh for electricity in Western Washington.
The average Power Trip solar array produces around 1,000 kWh a year per kW of installed hardware, so a 5 kW system would produce around 5,000 kWh per year. That means the owner of that solar array would receive $750 at the base rate of 15 cents per kWh from the production incentive alone.
If that same owner were using hardware manufactured in Washington state the incentive would be $2,700 per year, on top of utility credits.
The cost-savings of solar energy is one of the major motivating factors for potential owners, which, according to Cochrane is one of the reasons they’re trying so hard to tell people about the sales tax exemption before it’s too late.
To qualify for the exemption, clients must have their solar arrays installed before July 1. That’s why Power Trip has an April 30 deadline for customers hoping enroll in the Solarize Kitsap program.
Of course, Power Trip will continue offering its services after April 30, but for anyone hoping to take advantage of the Solarize Kitsap program or the sales tax exemption the deadline is coming up quickly.
Solar energy still isn’t cheap to install, but through the varied government subsidies and credits, low-interest loans and the returns on energy of the solar arrays themselves, more and more people are able to afford and utilize this form of renewable energy.
Cochrane said his grandfather became an electrician around the turn of the 20th century, at a time when it was a relatively new career. Most households still used gas lamps for light.
“I imagined him having to convince people that putting electricity in their house was a good thing,” Cochrane said. “And now I have to go out and convince people to put solar panels on their roof.”
Cochrane said he hopes and believes that the solar installer, just like the electrician or the plumber, will be just another trade needed every time a new house is built.