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Gretchen and Pete Bauer had been thinking about solar power since buying their home in northeast Seattle some 22 years ago. But they thought it would be too expensive. Last June, the couple completed installation of a 19-panel solar power system.

“A combination of federal and state tax credits reduced the payback from our original estimate of 20 years down to about six today,” says Gretchen Bauer.

Bauer’s Ravenna-Bryant neighbor Rebecca Dunsmoor-Su last summer cashed her first solar incentive check of $600, representing Washington state’s solar rebate of $.54/kWh for purchasing solar panels and inverters manufactured instate.

Rod and Sandy Nestor, of Puyallup, attended the Seattle Home Show in October at the Qwest Field Event Center to find out more about solar power in this part of the world, where sunshine is more frequently reported as “sunbreaks.”

“We’ve been interested in solar for several years, but have been uncertain about how it would work for us in our climate,” Rod said.

The answer may be surprising.

“Seattle gets 80 percent as much sun as San Diego,” says Keith Hughes, owner of West Seattle Natural Energy, and who conducted the seminar the Nestors attended.

It’s more a question of application than opportunity, according to Hughes.

“Berlin, Germany, receives 3.2 peak sun hours per day, and 44 percent of Germany’s energy production comes from solar,” Hughes pointed out. “By contrast, Seattle receives 3.8 peak hours of sunlight per day and only 1½ percent of its energy comes from solar power.”

That stat is something a partnership between Seattle City Light and the nonprofit Northwest Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (Northwest SEED) is working to change one neighborhood at a time through its Solarize Washington initiative. The partnership has already completed projects in Queen Anne, Magnolia and the northeast Seattle Bryant-Ravenna neighborhood, where Bauer and Dunsmoor-Su live. Northwest Seattle is the next targeted area

“Northwest SEED researches barriers to uses for renewable energy and overcomes them,” says Jennifer Grove, its executive director. “We identify communities with the right income demographics, and who demonstrate a willingness to put in the volunteer time to make the project work successfully.”

Once a community signs up Northwest SEED finds vendors who will give the homeowners a bulk discount on suppliers and installations.

Grove says its goal is to have 150 solar systems in operation by the summer of 2013.”

Phinney Ridge resident Bill Thorness is a co-leader in the effort to bring solar power to his neighborhood.

“I first contacted the SEED people, and they immediately shared with me other residents who had already called about their program,” Thorness says.

With those initial contacts Thorness began attending surrounding neighborhood meetings and collecting additional interested parties onto a Facebook page.

“We eventually submitted an application to SEED containing a list of interested residents,” Thorness said.

That was sufficient for SEED to name the neighborhoods Thorness and his steering committee had submitted as its sixth Solarize Seattle project.

Grove estimates Solarize Washington has pumped nearly $4 million into the local economy and has generated 14 new jobs, while adding more than 600 kilowatts of solar electricity to Seattle’s grid in the last two years.

If that sounds like one ray of sunshine, you would not be off base. City Light estimates only about 600 of its 400,000 customers are generating electricity through solar energy. Still, City Light remains committed to increasing the number of customers generating power from the sun.

“Every solar panel installed is one less bit of energy that has to be found in the marketplace,” says Scott Thomsen, City Light’s senior strategic adviser.

And every solar panel installed means homeowners are taking advantage of significant tax credits and rebates offered by both the federal government and the state of Washington. (see sidebar)

“We’re at the sweet spot in the history of solar power,” says Martha Rose, vice president of the Master Builders Association. “With a federal tax credit totaling 30 percent on material and installation costs, along with state rebates that increase if materials are purchased from Washington state manufacturers, a solar-energy system can pay for itself in five to 10 years.”

In addition to cashing that $600 check, Dunsmoor-Su is actually looking forward to filing her 2012 federal tax returns.

“That 30 percent income tax credit is going to look quite good on our return this year,” she said.

“The federal tax credit and the income generated from our own electricity generation is covering our home equity loan payments,” she explained.

Seattle actually offers an advantage to solar power that sunnier and drier cities don’t.

“Our lower average annual temperatures make a solar system more productive and the rainfall helps keep the solar panels clean and thereby more efficient,” says Jeremy Smithson, owner of Puget Sound Solar.

Gretchen Bauer also likes the fact that her home’s solar power’s generation stays in the neighborhood.

“Because of the way the grid works, what we don’t use flows to one of our neighbor’s homes and not out of our area,” she said. “Conceptually, that gives us a very good feeling about what we are accomplishing.”