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Advancing Solar in Washington State’s Capital Region

| By Zack Loehle, Interstate Renewable Energy Council

Home to the state capitol and stretching from the densely populated Puget Sound into Washington’s rural interior, Thurston County, Washington has embraced solar energy as a way to walk the walk on climate change. Their use of a regional approach to climate mitigation, coupled with a notable solar permit exemption, is making this SolSmart Silver community a leader in renewable energy. 

One thing setting Thurston County apart is that, since 2018, they have not required county-level permits for residential rooftop solar, using only state-level permitting and inspection. A lengthy permitting process can greatly increase wait times for building solar projects and drive up costs for both solar companies and consumers. Streamlined permitting is one of the key components of the SolSmart designation criteria.

Rooftop solar “was already regulated by the state, and already regulated through our safety building process, so we took the action to eliminate solar PV [permits] on built construction in order to serve two strategic initiatives: how to make it easier to build in Thurston County, and also how to protect the natural environment,” said Joshua Cummings, Thurston County’s Director of Community Planning and Economic Development. 

Given they are not taking in permits for residential rooftop solar, the county does not have hard data on how much more solar has been installed in recent years. But initiatives like the permit-free solar process, as well as the increased public education initiatives and other parts of the SolSmart criteria, have coincided with a decrease in emissions from buildings

“We have seen that emissions from electricity are going down, even as electricity use is increasing as our population grows,” said Rebecca Harvey, Climate Mitigation Senior Program Manager. 

Contractors complete a solar-plus-storage feasibility assessment on county-owned buildings.
Contractors complete a solar-plus-storage feasibility assessment on county-owned buildings.

Thurston County is actively engaged in installing solar panels on its own facilities as well. The Thurston County Public Works campus, for example, is a designated LEED Gold building. Geothermal wells are the primary source of heating and cooling for the building, and rooftop solar panels provide additional renewable energy. The county is looking at ways to expand solar installations further, and is currently completing a feasibility study for solar-plus-storage installations on five facilities. The feasibility study is a prerequisite to access state funding for installing more solar. County staff are also pursuing a potential partnership with Puget Sound Energy to install solar panels on the county’s closed landfill in the coming years. 

These efforts are all part of a regional approach designed to accelerate the transition to renewable energy, in a collaboration among Thurston County and its three largest cities—Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater. (Olympia earned SolSmart Gold designation in 2022, and Tumwater earned Silver earlier this year.) Guiding these efforts is a regional Climate Mitigation Plan  explicitly listing SolSmart as a way to advance the region’s climate goals. 

Before coming to Thurston County, Harvey had previous experience with the SolSmart program—in fact, she had helped guide the city of Boynton Beach, Florida to SolSmart Gold designation. 

“I knew from my prior experience at the City of Boynton Beach that [SolSmart] would be a great first initiative to take on…So, when I was starting in this role [in Thurston County], I jumped right in. SolSmart designation is an explicit action item in the climate mitigation plan, but beyond that it really enables progress in other areas of promoting renewable energy,” Harvey added. 

Any city, county, or regional organization across the U.S. can achieve SolSmart designation. To get started, contact us here, and begin your own path toward a cleaner energy future