North County Cities Going Solar

Published in San Diego Union Tribune

North County Cities Going Solar

U-T San Diego

Carlsbad starting second project this year, says taxpayers benefit

May 2, 2015

More North County cities are investing in green energy, saying the cost and benefits of solar power are a bargain for taxpayers.

Carlsbad completed a $1 million solar project earlier this year at Alga Norte Community Park, and the city is about to begin another installation at its Safety Training Center.

Both projects are expected to pay for themselves in energy savings within 10 or 11 years and will have a life span to 25 to 30 years, city officials said.

“We’re dropping in solar panels wherever we can,” said Carlsbad property manager Joe Garuba.

“It’s mainly driven by an economic standpoint,” he added. “If we can save the taxpayers money… that’s just good management in my book.”

Other North County cities are also moving toward solar.

Oceanside completed a 1 megawatt solar energy “farm” in 2013 on 10 acres adjacent to its San Luis Rey Wastewater Reclamation Plant that provides 25 to 30 percent of the treatment plant’s electricity needs, a savings estimated at more than $80,000 annually.

Vista installed 192 solar panels on the roofs of the two buildings at its Gloria McClellan senior center in Brengle Terrace Park in 2012, said city spokeswoman Andrea McCullough.

The senior center panels cost $317,000 and were completely paid for by a federal Department of Energy grant, McCullough said. The money was part of a total grant of $850,000 that also paid for other improvements such as switching parking lot lights to LED and upgrading the efficiency of air conditioning units. Together the projects reduced the Vista senior center’s energy consumption by 50 percent.

ADDING SOLAR

“Nearly every single city in North County, including Camp Pendleton, is doing a lot of solar,” said Benjamin Airth at the Center for Sustainable Energy in San Diego.

The center is a nonprofit organization that works with governments, businesses and individuals to deliver sustainable energy programs.

“We provide technical assistance in many forms,” Airth said.

Initially it was the financial incentives, rebates and tax credits that appealed to governments and private consumers, he said. But those financial incentives are beginning to disappear as the alternative power is beginning to pay its own way.

Solar panels become more efficient every year, he said. Government agencies have streamlined the approval process, making permits quicker to obtain and less expensive. And installation of the panels has become easier and faster.

“Every company is getting better at it,” Airth said. “There’s more training available. That goes along with growth.”

Other governmental agencies also are getting in on solar.

The Vista Irrigation District, which provides drinking water to more than 126,000 residents of Vista and parts of San Marcos, Escondido, Oceanside and unincorporated San Diego County, installed photovoltaic arrays on the roof of its headquarters in December 2010.

“It was up and running in February 2011 through a power-purchase agreement with Borrego Solar,” said district administrative services manager Brett Hotchkiss.

So far the system has served better than expected, Hotchkiss said, providing about 70 percent of the energy needs at the headquarters building, well above the 62 percent estimated before construction.

Borrego Solar agreed to build, operate and maintain the solar power system, and in return the irrigation district buys the solar power at a reduced rate for 20 years, a savings estimated at more than $300,000 over the life of the agreement.

SOME DISADVANTAGES

Solar power is not perfect.

Energy conservation groups generally agree that the disadvantages include high initial costs, limits on locations for panels that must be oriented toward the sun, pollution involved in manufacturing the panels, which are made of silicon and toxic metals, and the efficiency of the panels, which can convert only a limited amount of sunlight to energy.

Yet in Southern California that sunlight is available almost every day. Carlsbad is looking at bigger savings by installing more panels.

The Alga Norte system has 720 solar panels installed as shade structures in the parking lot and around the swimming pools at the aquatics complex.

The system cost about $1 million to install, and the city received a state rebate of more than $250,000 for the project. City officials estimate the Alga Norte project will save taxpayers about $66,000 annually in energy costs, enough to pay back the installation costs in 11 years.

The panels have a 25-year warranty and an estimated life span of 30 years.

The Safety Training Center will have 352 solar panels installed on its roof by the end of this fall, said Garuba, Carlsbad’s property manager.

“We’re in the final design phase now,” Garuba said. The design firm is Independent Energy Solutions of Vista, the same company that designed the Alga Norte system.

Carlsbad estimates it will cost $451,000 to install the solar panels at its safety center, and the city is eligible for a $98,000 rebate from the state to help pay for it.

Carlsbad also is considering an even bigger solar project — a $10 million solar panel installation at the Maerkle Reservoir on the eastern edge of Carlsbad near San Marcos.

The reservoir project’s electricity has the potential to offset 35 to 45 percent of the power consumed at all Carlsbad’s city government facilities, staffers say. That project also would be repaid in 11 years, staffers estimate, and then it would generate $20 million in savings for the city over the remainder of its life span.

“It’s definitely in the city’s best interest,” Garuba said, but a lot needs to happen before the reservoir project can proceed.

“It would take months of planning before going to the City Council,” he said.

All the city’s solar projects are connected directly to the regional power grid and the output is constantly monitored, Garuba said.

At noon on a sunny day, the solar panels produce more power than their host facilities consume. The facilities constantly draw from the grid, but as the sun goes down and solar power decreases, the facilities begin to consume more power than they produce.

“The meter spins one way, and then it spins the other way,” Garuba said.

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