One Woman’s Quest to Solarize Magnolia

By Matthew Halverson January 25, 2012 Published in the February 2012 issue of Seattle Met

PAM LEWIS IS NOT ONE TO SIT BACK and wait. And as the chair of Sustainable Magnolia, she’s also more than a bit of a greenie. So when the 24-year resident of Magnolia heard in winter 2010 that a group of Queen Anne homeowners were getting a bulk-rate discount on solar panel installations, she started to work on landing a similar deal for her neighbors. Or, as she puts it, “I started scheming.”

As details trickled west to the bluff, Lewis discovered that Queen Anne was the pilot project for Solarize Seattle, a project cooked up by the environmental advocacy nonprofit Northwest Seed. And the idea was simple: Northwest Seed would recruit a resident-run committee—responsible for building buzz in the neighborhood, hosting informational workshops, and finding homeowners who wanted to go green—and then help it negotiate a price with an electrical contractor that specialized in solar installations. “The concept actually started in Portland,” says Alexandra Sawyer, the project coordinator. “They came up with this group-buy structure that really took off.”

Lewis sent her husband to one of the Queen Anne workshops to gather more intel, and then about this time last year she started hanging Solarize Magnolia posters around the ’hood. Not only had installations not begun in Queen Anne, but Northwest Seed had yet to even consider bringing the project to Magnolia. Lewis couldn’t help herself. Decades ago her husband had given her a book on passive solar building design that flipped a switch in her brain: She had to turn their home into a sun-powered generator. Over the years, other interests—tending to her P-patch, raising a daughter who would go on to do environmental mediation work for Boeing—pushed those plans aside. But now she could finally follow through on them.

By summer 2011, Lewis, along with other members of Sustainable Magnolia, had rounded up 16 fellow sun worshippers. Thanks in large part to her work, Northwest Seed announced in June that Magnolia would be the site of its next Solarize campaign. The discount was a selling point for her neighbors—Queen Anne’s contractor offered 20 percent off; Magnolia’s promised slightly less—and so was the money they’d save over the long term. Pamela Burton, an owner of Puget Sound Solar, the contractor on the Magnolia project, says a typical solar setup on a house in Seattle can cut a home’s annual utility bill in half. On top of that, homeowners who buy systems manufactured in Washington State earn 54 cents for every kilowatt-hour produced by their array, paid out at the end of the year in a check from Seattle City Light. In most cases that bonus is more than enough to cover the cost of the electricity the homeowner had to buy in cloudy months.

The Queen Anne project wrapped last summer, and in January Northwest Seed launched another in northeast Seattle. (The registration deadline for that one is April 23.) Lewis and the Magnolians she recruited—the number had increased to 22 by December—should have their systems installed by the time you read this. And when that happens, she’ll be ready to take a break. “I’m exhausted,” she says. “I just hope we haven’t missed anybody that really wanted to do it.”

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