Olympia nonprofit asks public to help fund solar panels for Hands On Children’s Museum

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The Olympia City Council has given its OK to a new solar energy project at the Hands On Children’s Museum.

The council last week approved the lease of the Hands on Children’s Museum’s roof to Olympia Community Solar (OCS), a local nonprofit that wants to install solar panels to help to offset the museum’s energy consumption and costs.

An innovative twist to what is being called the Hummingbird Project: Olympia Community Solar is inviting the public to help fund the panels.

“Solar historically has been really inaccessible,” said OCS President Mason Rolph. Those who rent, live in shaded areas, or can’t afford the upfront installation costs have had no real way to offset their energy consumption with solar — until now. Community Solar allows businesses, homeowners, renters, and others to pay into the solar energy project and they will then recoup the cost over the solar panels’ lifetime.

“It’s basically kind of like a ‘buy a brick’ model, but you get paid back for your brick,” Rolph said.

OCS has two years to gather enough members to fully fund the project.

The panels will produce enough electricity to cover about a quarter of the Hands On Children’s Museum’s energy consumption. However, the museum won’t see the financial benefits right away. Throughout the project’s lease, the museum will pay for the value of the consumption offset by the solar panels back to OCS, so OCS can repay members who contributed money to the project for the initial installation.

Patty Belmonte, executive director of the Hands On Children’s Museum, emphasized that the museum isn’t just in this for the cost savings.

“We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do and because we want to set an example for the young people that we serve that we’re taking positive steps toward a healthy environment,” she said.

Belmonte also is excited about the learning opportunities the panels will provide young visitors. “It gives us an opportunity to do educational programming and have exhibitry around the solar project, so like everything we do here, we can turn this into a learning opportunity.”

During the construction of the museum’s building, the roof was specifically designed to accommodate solar panels, but because the museum already was energy efficient, it didn’t make sense to pay for solar panel installation at the time, Belmonte recalls.

The crowd funding of the new solar panels will allow the museum to finally take advantage of that design. “It’s a wonderful community win,” Belmonte said.

After the panels are paid off, OCS plans to donate the panels to the museum. At that point, the museum won’t have to pay for the electricity generated by the project, freeing up around $12,000 a year in the museum’s budget.

OCS also is providing the option for members to donate their shares of the solar project to the museum, so it can see savings on its energy bill sooner.

Members donating to the project also will have access to federal tax credits for their participation. And Olympia will benefit from the greenhouse gas reductions the solar panels will provide. OCS estimates the panels will save the equivalent of “4 million miles driven in a passenger vehicle” worth of emissions over the 30-year life of the project.

Rolph cited research that shows solar installations rise 44% within a mile of an solar array installation. Rolph and OCS vice president and outreach director Ari Simmons hope this project will be the beginning of renewable energy generated locally in Thurston County. Although the environmental benefits are clear, Rolph and Simmons hope they can further educate residents about the possible savings solar energy can provide.

“Solar is a very strong economic proposal,” Rolph said. “Once the project is installed, that’s the main capital cost. We’re not paying for fuel, it’s the sunshine.”

Simmons hopes the success of this project will help Thurston County residents see solar as a viable energy source that can help Thurston County reach its emission mitigation and reduction goals, and Washington state reach its 100% renewable energy mandate by 2045.

“This is a necessary form of energy to really meet the climate crisis where it is,” Simmons said. “That’s really why we’re here is to push our local leadership to move as quickly as possible to meet our climate action goals.

“I think the future is going to be a little brighter here in Olympia because of the work that we’re doing,” Simmons said.