Michael Lindquist
Michael Lindquist, a senior civil engineer with the city of Davis, manages the solar installation at the city of Davis wastewater treatment plant east of town. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

This great summary of solar energy development in Davis was written by Jeff Hudson of the Davis Enterprise. You can visit the original article here and subscribe here.

Photovoltaic solar panels have been going up all over Davis during the past few years — at public schools, on the UC Davis campus, and at businesses, government buildings and residences.

And the newest system — several rows of overhead carport-style solar panels in the parking lot that serves Davis High School and the Veterans’ Memorial Center — is about to go online. The Davis High project broke ground in May, and it should be finished by the end of July.

“If you park under one of the ‘carports,’ it’s a lot cooler. It’s providing shade and generating electrical power,” said Mike Adell, director of facilities for the Davis school district.

The solar panels on 14th Street are part of a 25-year power purchase agreement between a private company, SolarCity, and the Davis school district. Jennifer Jachym, senior commercial project development manager with SolarCity, said the project’s environmental benefits will include a carbon dioxide offset of 18.9 million pounds, the equivalent of planting more than 16 acres of trees and the equivalent of 24 million car miles driven in an ordinary vehicle.

It is estimated that the solar panels will save the high school a cumulative $1.18 million in utility bills over 25 years — money that will go back into the school district’s general fund, and therefore will be available for other purposes.

The school district and SolarCity also partnered on solar power systems at Korematsu Elementary (another carport-style system) and at Harper Junior High (a ground installation). Both of those systems’ first full month of production was last October, Jachym said.

The Harper system has thus far produced 269,076 kilowatt-hours, almost 75 percent of the expected 346,492 kWh for the first full year of operation. And the big energy-producing weeks of late July, August and September are just beginning. The Korematsu system has produced 135,396 kWh to date, and is on track to produce the anticipated 181,583 kWh expected for the first full year.

“We will have to have the systems in place before we can accurately assess whether they are producing as planned,” Jachym said. “It is looking like those systems will get to their targets, and most likely exceed them.”
School board trustee Richard Harris — who ran as a “green schools” candidate in 2007, and served on the committee that worked out the contract between the school district and  SolarCity — is particularly happy to see the systems producing power.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s going to save us money,” Harris said.

He added that state. Sen. Lois Wolk has introduced legislation that would allow the school district to set up solar panels in one location and credit them to a PG&E meter at a different location. If the bill becomes law, the school district might be able to set up more solar panels.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s going to save us money,” Richard Harris, school board trustee

“I’m happy the school district can get out in front on this issue, and show kids that we can save money and use our resources wisely. It’s working,” Harris said.

University power

UC Davis has multiple solar installations, including seven sites that came online in January. These include highly visible carport-style installations in the parking lot that serves the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts and the adjacent Robert Mondavi Institute of Food and Wine Science. There are also solar panels on the Mondavi Institute Brewery.

David Phillips, utilities director with the university’s administrative and resource management department, said the systems “are working out exactly as planned. The goals for UC Davis were not strictly financial. We’re receiving clean, on-site energy to reduce our carbon footprint and help us achieve LEED certification for new buildings.”

Annual power generation is estimated at 1,100 megawatt hours, equivalent to the needs of an older office building like Mrak Hall, Phillips said. “The solar systems offset 800 metric tons of carbon emissions in the power we purchase,” he added.

The UCD systems were financed and constructed by Main Street Power Co. in Boulder, Colo. UCD purchases the power that the systems produce.

“Under our agreement with Main Street Power, the campus pays a fixed price per kilowatt-hour for solar power, with annual increases built into the contract,” Phillips explained. “Currently, the cost per kilowatt-hour is slightly higher than our Western Area Power Administration price”; the university buys most of its power from WAPA.

“But the costs are certain for the next 20 years. Even though we’re paying a small premium for green power, these highly visible solar power installations are in line with UC Davis’ long-term sustainability goals.”

The university also has extensive solar installations in the apartments at the West Village residential project west of Highway 113 and south of Russell Boulevard. West Village claims to be the largest planned zero-net-energy community in the United States. It is on track to demonstrate, for the first time, that zero net energy is practical on a large scale.

Frontier Fertilizer

Another highly visible solar installation is at the former Frontier Fertilizer site on Second Street in Mace Ranch, where pesticides and herbicides were spilled on the soil in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in groundwater contamination that led to the land being designated as a federal Superfund cleanup project.

Frontier Fertilizer site’s solar power system has reduced overall energy costs for the cleanup by $15,000 annually, and will trim CO2 emissions by more than 54 metric tons a year.

In February 2011, an array of solar panels covering a half-acre of land began producing electricity that supports a system of 236 electrodes that heat the soil and groundwater to the boiling point of water. Extraction wells in and around the heated areas collect the gas and liquids generated; they are then treated with granular activated carbon. Twenty-seven temperature-monitoring wells are used as part of the below-ground operation.

It is estimated that the site’s solar power system has reduced overall energy costs for the cleanup by $15,000 annually, and will trim CO2 emissions by more than 54 metric tons a year. It also will reduce the projected timeline to clean up the site from 150 years to 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

County projects

Yolo County also has several significant solar power systems. In July 2010, Yolo County, SunPower Corp. of San Jose and Bank of America teamed up to bring a one-megawatt solar power system online at the county jail on Gibson Road at County Road 102 in Woodland. The system uses “tracker panels” that follow the sun’s movement during the day. It is estimated to avoid more than 2.2 million pounds of CO2 emissions each year, equivalent to removing some 5,700 cars from California’s roads over the 30-year life of the system.

Terry Vernon, the county’s deputy director of general services, said the solar array at the jail produces up to 80 percent of the energy needs there. “(The system) has a positive cash flow. It made $152,000 the first year, over and above the debt service,” Vernon said.

Solar installations at four branches of the county’s public library system — Davis, Esparto, Knights Landing and Yolo — create a revenue stream to support the libraries, he added. That’s estimated at $552,000 over 25 years.

Vernon said the county is working up a proposal for a 6-megawatt system that would include solar panels on several sites.

“We would produce power in one location and credit the power to meters in other locations,” Vernon said. “We have 55 county buildings with electric meters on them.”

City of Davis

Davis city government likewise has a big solar installation at its wastewater treatment plant east of town. The project consists of 3,500 solar panels (covering about six acres), and produces an estimated 1.7 million kWh per year — enough to cover most of the wastewater plant’s energy demand of about 2.2 million kWh per year.

Due to the net metering rules and a favorable time-of-use tariff, the project produces enough additional energy credits to offset the entire cost of the power that the wastewater plant consumes.

“Over the entire year, our electrical meter will read zero,” confirmed Michael Lindquist, a senior civil engineer and the project’s manager.

The plant’s solar array, which came online in June 2010, was designed and constructed by SPG Solar and is owned and operated by SunEdison. “The project is forecast to yield approximately $2 million of energy savings over the 20-year life of the project,” Lindquist said.

Private homes

Lindquist really believes in solar. He had a modest 2.4 kW array of rooftop solar panels installed at his Davis home about nine years ago. “The panels provide about 60 percent of the electricity we use,” he said. “We were low energy users to begin with.”

Another homeowner who has installed solar panels is Jack Donaldson, who several years ago put a 6.75 kW array of panels on the west- and south-facing portions of his roof in the Slide Hill Park neighborhood.

“We get four to five months a year where we have no bill at all, because we produce an excess of energy,” Donaldson said. “During the winter, it goes up a little bit because we use some gas in our fireplace. Our highest bill in any month since we put the solar panels in was $22.”

Donaldson has made several energy-saving improvements to his house since 1991, when he moved in. He planted a ginkgo tree that shades the west-facing windows, where the afternoon sun once blazed in. He replaced the old single-pane aluminum-frame windows with double-pane vinyl-frame windows.

When he got a new roof,  he got one backed with an aluminum foil product that reflects heat, keeping the attic space cooler, and he vented the attic space, as well as installing insulation between the first and second floors of the house, “so that in the summer, the first floor is always cool.”

He also has a clothesline in his yard, and he purchased a tankless water heater. He even has a recirculating pump that moves hot water through the pipes, rather than running the shower until hot water reaches the bathroom.

“The money we used to redo our roof and put up the solar array came out of our retirement plan,” Donaldson said. “I was making 1.5 percent on the 401(k), and I thought ‘I can probably make a 4.5 percent savings (with the energy-savings upgrades). I looked at it as a green investment. And it’s worked out very well.”

Local businesses

Several local businesses use solar power as well. Doby Fleeman of Davis Ace said the store has used an 8.5 kW array of solar panels since 2001.

“We’ve had good reliability with the system,” Fleeman said. He added that other businesses should look into the possibility. “The solar industry has grown, and the cost of a new system has come down. When you take into account the depreciation from the business owner’s viewpoint, and the very favorable tax credits, it puts a solar energy system within reach for many businesses. Frankly, we’re going to see more and more of it.”

Fleeman said his only “mixed feelings” relate to the tax credits being applied toward foreign-produced solar panels. “Essentially, it’s become a credit that is subsidizing Chinese manufacturing (of solar panels) at this point,” Fleeman said. “Maybe they should consider reserving the tax credit for U.S-produced solar panels.”

“The system has already paid for itself” Karan Khoshcar, University Imports Auto Repair

When Karan Khoshcar moved his auto repair business, University Imports, into a new building on East Fifth Street in 2000, he decided to explore the idea of solar panels, and put in a 10 kW system (with about 76 solar panels) in 2003.

“I get about $600 of savings a month,” Khoshcar said. “That’s why I can afford to blast the air-conditioning on hot days.”

“The system has already paid for itself,” he said. “Back when we put the system in, (it) cost about $80,000. But with the rebates, we paid a little under $38,000. The rebates aren’t quite as good now, but the cost of the panels has come down. So it still makes business sense to do it.”

Though customers don’t necessarily see the systems from the street, the Davis Food Co-op has been using two kinds of solar energy systems on its roof for about 10 years.

“We have about 35 kW of solar integrated membrane,” said Eric Stromberg, general manager. “The rooftop surface is a thin film silicon product from Solar Integrated Technologies, which is heat-welded onto the roofing material. So the rooftop surface is generating energy. We also have about 15 kW of conventional solar panels.

“The cool thing about the integrated membrane is that we can use it to cover a lot more area than we could with conventional solar panels. And it ‘wakes up’ earlier in the morning, so we start generating power earlier in the day,” he explained. “It takes less light to get that part of the system active than it does with regular panels.

“Grocery stores use a lot of power,” Stromberg added. “We’ve been really happy with our solar; it provides about 7 percent of our total electrical needs. ”

There are also solar panels at research and development facility known as DTL — Digital Technology Laboratories — on Faraday Avenue. “Our total system is 170 kW,” said Adam Hansel, chief operating officer. “I would say about 15 percent of the system is in carport-style installations that you can see from the street. But another 85 percent of the system is on the roof of the building” — an expansive area that most passers-by never see.

Hansel said that while there is some marketing advantage to carport-style solar installations, “I believe carport structures are economically less feasible than a rooftop installation. The carports look nice, but it is expensive to put up all that steel, with seismic concerns and wind-loading.”

Hansel added that it is easier to install rooftop solar when a company is putting up a new building, and the roof is designed and constructed with solar in mind, which was the case when the DTL building went up in 2009.

He added that “we are still considering the possibility (of solar) at the new Mori Seiki building” under construction adjacent to DTL. “The price of solar has come down, but some of the public incentives have dried up.”

Churches, others

Church buildings also have extensive roof areas, so it should come as no surprise that several local congregations have installed solar panels. These include the United Methodist Church of Davis, which celebrated Earth Day 2012 by consecrating a photovoltaic system. In her Earth Day sermon, the Rev. Kelly Love spoke of the “Christian responsibility for wise stewardship of our environment.”

The church also has replaced old-style light bulbs with CFL or LED bulbs, started sending the church newsletter electronically rather that printing it on paper and eliminated disposable coffee cups in favor of washable glass and plastic.

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis also has had solar panels for several years. In an Internet posting, church member Carol Hom wrote, “We financed our solar array internally, with a small-scale pledge drive (with about a dozen folks contributing) with the balance coming from the church’s maintenance reserve. … We intend to include solar on the roof of any new construction, and perhaps add more panels to existing buildings.”

And what about the granddaddy of local photovoltaic installations? The former PVUSA site — PhotoVoltaics for Utility Systems Applications — was constructed on Pole Line Road north of Davis in 1986. Originally sponsored by government and private industry, the site was sold to the city of Davis for $1 in 2003.

While the 650 kW system there is something of an antique and produces a comparatively small amount of power by contemporary standards — enough to power about 108 homes — there is talk of upgrading the facility with a more modern array that could generate much more electricity. Any such proposal ultimately will go before the Davis City Council for consideration.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.