United States — Ellensburg Community Solar Project

Nicola Mares • 13 March 2020

Author: Jarra Hicks

Extensive collaboration and support in the Ellensburg Community Solar Project in Washington State has made access to solar power easier for a wider cross-section of the community. And its continuing growth means fewer CO2 emissions than from traditional methods of electricity generation.

Project overview

The Ellensburg Community Solar project came about through collaboration between the City of Ellensburg, Washington State University and the Bonneville Environment Foundation, starting in 2003. It has since involved community members partnering with the city through several phases of the project. Phase 1 was completed in 2006, making the Ellensburg Community Solar program the first collectively-owned solar installation in the US. Phases 2 and 3 were completed in 2009.

The project's founders wanted to make solar power more accessible and produce renewable energy locally. Currently, renters, apartment owners, people with shaded roofs and those who can't afford the start-up costs, can't contribute to solar electricity production. However, many people in the community support the concept of solar power and a community project to help it happen on a larger scale. Pooling funds to create a solar farm on public land was a way to help overcome these barriers. What's more, it meant the maintenance was a collective responsibility, not an individual one. The founders also wanted to highlight renewable energy's key role in meeting the community's future energy needs, promote energy independence and encourage a shift away from fossil fuels.

Local people and businesses are encouraged to contribute any amount they can to the Ellensburg Community Solar program, up to an amount that will completely offset their annual electricity bill. In exchange, they receive a credit for the amount of solar electricity the project produces for the next 20 years. So if a member contributes 5% of the total funds contributed, then they receive a credit for 5% of the electricity the solar project produces. Credits appear as 'Solar Credits' on members' electricity bills.

Project cost and funding

  • Phase 1: A 36 kW polycrystalline solar installation costing $286,000 — 36% funded by community contributions, 20% through a grant from the Bonneville Environment Foundation and 45% from the Bonneville Environment Foundation’s conservation rate credit program.

  • Phase 2: A further 21.6 kW added, costing $178,000 — 66% funded by Central Washington University and 34% from the Bonneville Environment Foundation’s conservation rate credit program.

As community funds continue to come in, the project keeps growing, and the aim is to expand the project to 165 kW by 2012. In 2009, the Federal Department of Energy committed to match community contributions up to $600,000 over the next two years. Community contributions have already reached $142,000.


Support from the City of Ellensburg council has been crucial to the project’s success. The project received unanimous council approval and the City’s Conservation and Renewable Energy Program funds the site of the solar farm, its grid connection and equipment. The council also helps market the project and attract new members. This support means community members’ contributions can go directly into buying more solar panels. The City’s Energy Service maintains the members' database, tracking each member’s investment and production in kWh. The billing department adds each member’s solar credit to their electricity bill.

Because Ellensburg still has a public, municipal utility, the project’s progress and success has been much easier. And for future generations, Ellensburg's university and local schools now include the solar farm as a learning tool in their classes.

In 2009, Washington State introduced legislation that qualifies members of a community-owned solar project for the state renewable energy incentive. Members of the Ellensburg Community Solar project are now eligible for 35¢ per kWh for their portion of the solar generation, up to a maximum of $5,000 per year.

The project is owned by the City of Ellensburg, but the community members who contribute funds own the rights to the value of the electricity produced and the environmental benefits of the project (in the form of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECS)). The solar electricity it produces is fed into the grid.


Until changes to legislation in 2009, the project and its members had no access to Washington state’s renewable energy production incentives. This threatened the financial viability of the project. Since the new legislation, however, there are many more incentives for local people to get involved.


The project is putting Ellensburg’s 300 days of sunshine each year to good use. It has also overcome many of the common barriers to household solar projects, and helped create much-needed change in approaches to funding and siting. This means more people can take part in solar power generation, and as it continues to grow, the project displaces more CO2 emissions from traditional sources of electricity generation.

More information

The Bonneville Environment Foundation and North West Sustainable Energy for Economic Development (2009)