Tuesday, May 22 , 2018, 8:53 am | Partly Cloudy 60º


New Solar Power Network Promises to Energize Santa Barbara

Unique arrangement with private provider aimed at giving city long-term energy savings, lower bills.

Flipping the switch on what is intended to be a new era in Santa Barbara's energy use are, from right, Councilman Dale Francisco, Mayor Marty Blum and Council members Helene Schneider and Grant House.
Flipping the switch on what is intended to be a new era in Santa Barbara’s energy use are, from right, Councilman Dale Francisco, Mayor Marty Blum and Council members Helene Schneider and Grant House. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara officials say they’ll be saving money on electric bills as well as reducing the city’s carbon footprint, all thanks to an extensive network of solar panels that was unveiled Wednesday. The panels have been installed atop the buildings that make up the city’s corporation yard along Garden and Laguna streets, where public works and maintenance take place.

During Wednesday’s unveiling of the new system, Mayor Marty Blum said the decision to install the panels is one that will save the city cash, and she talked about the impressive environmental impact that will be afforded by using solar power instead of traditional electricity. The system is projected to produce 550,000 kilowatts of energy per year. That amount would offset 191 metric tons of carbon dioxide, Blum said, and is the equivalent of powering 100 Santa Barbara homes for a year. The installation of the 384-kilowatt system makes it the largest solar power system in the city.

The panels may even produce more power than the complex will need to operate, which will allow power to flow back out to the grid and be used by the community, said Jim Dewey, city facilities and energy manager.

The project is a result of a joint effort by Suntech Power Holdings, the world’s largest manufacturer of photo voltaic modules, and Tioga Energy, a renewable energy services provider.

The project is operated without any initial capital from the city. Instead, the system is financed by Tioga, which owns the system but sells the electricity to the city at a fixed rate. The arrangement helps protect the city from unforeseen utility rate increases throughout the life of its 20-year contract with Tioga.

The funding mechanism that pays for the projects comes from investors who are looking to offset their profits with tax credits for wind and solar projects. By joining up with Tioga, those investors can contribute tax equity dollars for projects like Santa Barbara’s.

Santa Barbara's new solar panel network utilizes available roof space on city structures along Garden and Laguna streets.
Santa Barbara’s new solar panel network utilizes available roof space on city structures along Garden and Laguna streets. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
“We’re using all of the different incentives and tax benefits that are provided for solar,” said Preston Roper, Tioga’s executive vice president of corporate development and operations. “As a not-for-profit, or a government institution, the city doesn’t have a tax bill that it can offset. We do, via these investor pools.”

Santa Barbara will only pay for electricity that is generated, he said.

“The city gets a locked-in rate for the electricity for the life of the contract, that you don’t get from Edison,” he said.

And because solar energy can cost between $6 to $7.50 per watt, the city opts out of the risk that usually follows the initial investment; the total cost of the project is somewhere between $2.3 million and $2.9 million. Santa Barbara is the first city Tioga has worked with, Roper said. Municipalities are good candidates for a project like this because they can’t take advantage of the tax incentives, he said, and because cities are so cash-strapped with the current state of the economy, “it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“This is a long-term hedge in terms of future rate increases,” he said.

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