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Tapping into the Sun’s Energy

By John Dodge
The Bellingham Herald
Stone Hedge House largest of 19 projects that can be viewed Oct 1st 2011 as part of the South Sound Solar Tour
Several Sunset Air Inc., employees scurried in and around the home of Roger Hickey Thursday, putting the final touches on a massive solar power system that should provide all the energy needed to power and heat this 5,500 square-foot mansion, dubbed Stone Hedge House. The installation of 96 ground-mounted solar panels, six inverters and a geothermal heat pump should be finished in time for the 2011 South Sound Solar Tour, set for 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 1. It will be the largest residential solar system tied into the power grid in Thurston County, said Randy Norris, renewable energy division manager for Sunset Air and a board member of the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, which is a prime sponsor of the solar tour.

The 19 tour stops are designed to inspire and educate the public about tapping into the sun’s energy range. Locations range from this upscale home built in 1999 in the Canterwood development off Yelm Highway to the Olympia Farmers Market, where a solar system featuring 192 solar panels was installed this summer to defray utility costs for the market and make money for investors.
Buoyed by ever increasing electricity costs, tax breaks and utility payments for energy the Stone Hedge power plant generates, Hickey expects to recoup his sizeable investment in about 12 years. Sunset officials think it should happen in seven years.
Hickey said he embarked on this ambitious project six months ago, seeing it as a way to combat climate change and cut down the cost of heating and lighting his huge house. And, he said, when the time comes to sell the home, its energy independence will add value to the home. “By doing this, I hope more people will do it,” Hickey added.
Residential solar power is a growing part of Sunset Air’s business, said Sunset residential project manager Dave Leicht. The Lacey-based company has installed about 10 systems recently with six more projects in the planning stages. “I think we’ll see more projects like this in the future, but this will probably be the largest solar panel array in Thurston County for quite some time,” Leicht predicted.
According to Puget Sound Energy statistics, Thurston County is home to 85 solar projects tied into the power grid and totalling 375 kilowatts of power. Two years ago, the number of projects tallied by Puget Sound Energy stood at 35. The solar panels at Stone Hedge are aligned to the southwest in a prairie setting that maximizes exposure to the sun. The panels will soak up the bulk of the sun they use seven months in the year, Norris said.
While some might think the Puget Sound region suffers too many cloudy, rainy days to support solar power, the state as a whole has 30 percent more sunlight per year than Germany, the country that uses the most solar power in the world, according to this year’s solar tour brochure.
Check out county’s solar projects
The 2011 South Sound Solar Tour is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 1 at 19 locations across Thurston County. Information about the tour is available online at SouthSoundSolarTour.org, including directions for the free event and details about four guided mini-tours that include transportation and lunch for $25. The guided tours leave from the Olympia Farmers Market.
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