Solar Works for Washington

How Expanding Solar Power Will Protect Our Environment and Benefit Our Economy

Washington’s strong clean energy policies have made it a national leader in wind energy and in energy efficiency. However, the state’s potential for solar power remains virtually untapped. Washington can start taking advantage of its full potential for solar energy by developing its capacity for rooftop solar power. 


Jordan Schneider

Policy Analyst

Washington’s strong clean energy policies have made it a national leader in wind energy and in energy efficiency. However, the state’s potential for solar power remains virtually untapped. Washington can start taking advantage of its full potential for solar energy by developing its capacity for rooftop solar power. 

By 2025, Washington can install more than 650,000 rooftop solar PV systems—equivalent to about 3,200 megawatts (MW) of solar energy capacity.* Rooftop solar power can help the state reduce its contribution to global warming and protect our environment. More solar power would also create jobs and boost manufacturing in Washington. Putting policies in place to accelerate the growth of the solar energy market will allow Washington to start reaping these benefits immediately.

Sunlight is a significant source of untapped energy potential in Washington.

  • By placing solar panels on all available and appropriate rooftop space, Washington could technically install 14,800 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) power systems by 2025. Achieving this “technical potential” would result in enough solar PV capacity to generate the equivalent of 14 percent of Washington’s forecasted electricity use in 2025. 

Combined, rooftop solar power, solar water heating and utility-scale solar power can replace 5.5 percent of Washington’s total electricity use by 2025 – or nearly as much as the electricity produced by the Columbia nuclear power plant each year. 

  • By developing about 22 percent of its full technical potential for rooftop solar power over the next 12 years, Washington can get at least 3 percent of its annual electricity needs from the sun through rooftop solar PV systems alone. That is enough electricity to power 246,000 typical Washington homes – or more than all the homes in Spokane, Tacoma, and Vancouver combined. 
  • At the same time, developing 22 percent of Washington’s full solar water heating potential would save enough electricity and natural gas to meet the full water heating needs of more than 400,000 Washington households.
  • New utility-scale solar power plants built on vacant land could generate another 1.7 million MWh annually by 2025. 

Solar energy prevents global warming pollution and protects Washington’s environment.

  • By 2025, solar energy in Washington would annually prevent more than 2.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution. This would be equivalent to eliminating the emissions from 460,000 passenger cars on the road today.
  • Global warming threatens to increase average temperatures in Washington by as much as 10°F by the 2080s, reducing winter snowpack, threatening urban and rural water supplies, interfering with agriculture and salmon habitat, and harming public health through increased air pollution, exposure to extreme heat and weather events, and increased spread of some diseases. Carbon dioxide pollution is also acidifying the ocean, threatening salmon, shellfish and other sea life.

Increasing the market for solar power in Washington could make the state a leader in the regional solar power industry, create jobs and boost the state economy.

  • As of 2011, Washington’s solar industry employed 2,300 people at 93 firms – a 180 percent increase from 2010, according to The Solar Foundation and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
  • Since 2006, solar PV manufacturing companies, such as Silicon Energy and Itek Energy in western Washington, have drawn more than $1.6 billion in capital investments to the state, while solar PV construction and installation have drawn another $55 million. 
  • Expanding Washington’s solar energy market would create thousands of additional jobs in solar energy installation and maintenance – creating jobs that cannot be outsourced – as well as in manufacturing.

Washington should set a goal of installing solar PV systems on 150,000 rooftops by 2020 and on 650,000 rooftops by 2025. The state should also set a goal to install 400,000 residential and commercial solar water heating systems by 2025 and to develop more of the state’s utility-scale solar energy potential. 

The state can achieve these goals by:

  • Enabling third-party financing – Third-party financing lowers the upfront cost of solar PV for consumers. In these agreements, a solar electricity company installs rooftop solar panels at little or no initial cost to its customers. The company retains ownership of the panels, but the customer gains access to the solar electricity the panels provide. 
  • Renewing and expanding incentive programs – Under Washington’s Cost Recovery Incentive program, utilities may elect to pay homeowners with rooftop solar PV systems for every kilowatt-hour of electricity they produce, helping them pay off the cost of their systems at a faster rate. The state should extend this program beyond its 2020 expiration date and guarantee solar production incentives to consumers for at least 10 years. 
  • Expand opportunities for net metering by raising the net metering cap statewide – The state’s net metering policies require utilities to credit customers who produce solar electricity at the retail rate for every kilowatt-hour they produce. However, these policies limit the amount of solar electricity that can be credited and will soon hamper small-scale solar PV development. The cap should be raised to a minimum of 5 percent of utility peak aggregate demand, and the state should allow systems of any size to qualify for net metering, provided that they do not generate any more electricity than the home or facility uses in a year. 
  • Establishing a feed-in tariff program for large solar energy systems – Feed-in tariffs encourage development of commercial-scale and utility-scale solar installations by requiring utilities to purchase solar electricity at a fixed rate from producers, which guarantees producers a reasonable return on their investments.    
  • Strengthening the state’s renewable electricity standard – To drive development of solar power in Washington, the state should strengthen its renewable electricity standard (RES) to get 25 percent of its total electricity use from renewable sources by 2030.
  • Eliminating siting restrictions for community solar projects – The state should remove siting restrictions that currently limit community solar projects to local government-owned properties, which prevents private schools, churches, or other non-profit organizations from using their own facilities to house solar arrays.  
  • Create a net-zero energy building code – Washington should require all new homes to generate the equivalent of their entire energy use annually by 2020 and all new commercial buildings to do the same by 2030.

*For the purposes of this report, we assume rooftop systems to be 5 kW in size.



Jordan Schneider

Policy Analyst