Local News

Solar panels generate more power for local agencies

By From page A1 | August 20, 2013

Sun glints on the solar panels at the PVUSA  facility along Pole Line Road north of Davis. 
Wayne Tilcock/ Enterprise file photo

Sun glints on the solar panels at the PVUSA facility along Pole Line Road north of Davis. Wayne Tilcock/ Enterprise file photo

Local agencies have embraced alternative technologies to help reduce the region’s carbon footprint and generate sustainable energy. UC Davis, the Davis Joint Unified School District, the city of Davis and Yolo County all report making profitable strides in using solar power.

Over the past few years, UC Davis has installed photovoltaic solar panel systems in several areas of the campus. David Phillips, director of utilities for the campus, said these recently installed systems are producing electricity as expected — and he added that the university is preparing to consider a big new project.

“We haven’t installed any new panels in the last year, but the existing rooftop and parking lot systems are all working well,” Phillips said. “Electricity production is right in line with expectations and we haven’t had any significant down time or operational issues.  These systems provide a small fraction of our overall (campus) electrical use, but they helped enable several of our new buildings to receive LEED platinum certification.”

These include:

* The Student Community Center;

* Gladys Valley Hall, a veterinary medicine instructional facility;

* UCD Conference Center and Maurice J. Gallagher Jr. Hall complex, which is home to the UC Davis Graduate School of Management; and

* Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which in 2010 became the first brewery, winery and food-processing complex in the world to go platinum.

There are also quite a few solar panels in the still relatively new West Village development on campus, which includes several hundred units of student housing. West Village is billed as the largest planned zero-net-energy community in the United States.

Phillips added that there is a project in development that could vastly increase the amount of electricity produced via solar panels and used on campus.

“Over the past year, our team has been working to develop the next phase of solar photovoltaic projects to help us meet (the university’s) greenhouse gas emission reduction goals in a cost-effective way,” Phillips said.

His department is working on a proposal “to construct a large ground-mounted solar farm on a 70-acre site in the south campus. The system would have a capacity of 7 to 14 megawatts, which would provide 6.5 to 11 percent of total campus electricity demands. All of the electricity generated would be directly used on the UC Davis campus.

“Given the scale of the project and current market pricing, we believe costs  for this project will be comparable to the price we would otherwise pay for electricity from the grid,” he continued. “We plan to implement the project via a private third party under a 20-year power purchase agreement. The campus anticipates purchasing the system from the third party after the sixth year of operation to minimize our overall costs.”

Phillips said the university’s analyses indicate that its average cost for electricity from this project will be the same or less than its business-as-usual model of purchasing electricity from Western Area Power Administration.

Davis schools

The Davis school district installed solar panel systems at Korematsu Elementary, a carport-style installation in the school parking lot, and at Harper Junior High, a ground installation, about two years ago. Last summer, a third solar panel system came online at Davis High School — mostly carport-style panels in the parking lot, with some additional panels in a ground installation.

The systems were installed through a power purchase agreement between the school district and Solar City, a Bay Area-based company.

Retired school board member Richard Harris was a vocal advocate of the installation of solar panels at schools, but he has regrets about how the project came to fruition.

“Looking back, I regret that the school district was not in the fiscal position to take advantage of net metering solar projects,” he said. “We never had the up-front capital to build and own a system. Instead, we had to take advantage of a power purchase agreement where we lease arrays and get lower power rates then what we would otherwise pay PG&E.

“It is better than not doing it at all, but I will always be reminded that the PPA decision is one more casualty of the disastrous fiscal condition faced by the district since 2008.”

Now that the state budget crisis is fading, and the district’s financial situation is finally easing, Harris said Davis “should take a hard, creative look at using new revenues to either buy or borrow against to build and own new solar systems to take advantage of net metering. … Owning solar arrays saves, shades and schools students on sustainability. The three S’s are a new three R’s.”

He added, “School sites should reflect a community’s values. We should have solar on every parcel the district owns. The solar installation in the Davis High School lot (already) seems like it has been there forever, and people love parking in the shade” of the carport structures.

“Investing new dollars in solar could bring a long-term payback,” Harris predicted. “Spend to build solar, utilize net metering, reduce power bought off the grid, and after a few years you recoup the investment and free up ongoing revenue for teachers and programs.”

Jonathan Bass, senior director of communications with Solar City, said the Davis High system has met expectations during its first year of operation.

“For the high school, we predicted approximately 795,000 kilowatt-hours in the first year, and it appears from our monitoring system that the panels produced approximately 860,000 kilowatt-hours,” he said.

Bass added that the systems at Korematsu Elementary and Harper Junior High, which are operated by Solar City under the power purchase agreement, are also producing a bit more electricity than was initially predicted at the time those systems were built.

City of Davis

Three years ago, the city of Davis completed a large array of ground-mounted solar panels at the wastewater treatment plant northeast of town. Project manager Michael Lindquist recently told The Enterprise that “the project has been quietly producing electricity since July 2010. Since it was switched on, it has produced over 5.6 million kilowatt-hours.”

“Additionally, the plant utilizes anaerobic digestion of sewage solids to produce methane gas, which is converted to electricity through a co-generation system. Combined, the plant produces approximately 90 percent of the plant’s yearly energy demand from renewable resources.”

Lindquist added, “The planned wastewater plant upgrade project, which is required to meet more stringent regulatory water quality objectives, will require significantly more energy to operate than the existing plant. The city’s project procurement process includes consideration of the energy efficiency of the plant upgrades and the potential for additional energy demands to be met with renewable resources.”

Yolo County

Yolo County, meanwhile, was recently designated as one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top 20 on-site green power users, coming in at No. 14.

The ranking comes as a result of Yolo generating nearly 14 million kilowatt-hours of green power from on-site solar energy production, a program that creates enough green power to meet 152 percent of the county’s electricity use.

Terry Vernon, Yolo County deputy director of general services, called the recognition a “huge honor,” adding, “Using green power helps our county become more sustainable, while also sending a message to others across the U.S. that supporting clean sources of electricity is a sound business decision and an important choice in reducing climate change risk.”

According to the EPA, Yolo County ’s green power generation of nearly 14 million kWh is equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 2,000 passenger vehicles per year or the CO2 emissions from the electricity use of more than 1,000 average American homes annually.

The Board of Supervisors adopted a Yolo County Climate Action Plan in March 2011. The plan was one of the first of its kind and encompassed a strategy for smart growth implementation, greenhouse gas reduction and adaptation to global climate change. The board also approved a number of renewable energy projects that would zero out the county ’s entire electric bill.

Two large solar projects are currently making that possible, one at the Grasslands Regional Park south of Davis, the other at the Beamer/Cottonwood site in Woodland.

Built by SunPower Corp., the two ground-mounted solar power systems were paid for through public financing and are expected to save the county $51 million over the next 25 years.

The projects consist of a 5-megawatt photovoltaic solar array on approximately 21 acres at the Grasslands site and a 0.8-megawatt photovoltaic solar array on approximately 2 acres at the Beamer/Cottonwood Site.

You can view the city of Davis Wastewater Solar Project energy status at:


You can view the energy status of the Davis school district’s solar power systems at:

Harper Junior High:


Korematsu Elementary:


Davis High School:


— Anne Ternus-Bellamy contributed to this report. Reach her at [email protected]; follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] 

Jeff Hudson

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