County Shines With Solar Program

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

November 6, 2020

The County has finished much of the construction on a 1.2 megawatt solar farm off Oklahoma Avenue that will help
power some 12 County facilities, including the various jails, saving over $5 million over 20 years. Photo by Neil Farrell

San Luis Obispo County is in the midst of a significant turn to renewable energy systems, installing solar energy and battery facilities at key County-owned sites with an eye at saving millions in energy costs and considerably cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

County Energy and Water Coordinator, Annie Secrest, has been leading these efforts that have taken advantage of State energy programs, requiring little or no investment from the County. She’s produced significant results in a relatively short time.
In June 2018, County Supervisors approved installing carport/canopy style solar panels at Dairy Creek Golf Course in El Chorro Regional Park and at the Department of Social Services on Higuera Street in SLO.

In May 2019, Supervisors approved a 1.2-megawatt solar farm on Oklahoma Avenue (off Hwy 1) that is forecast to save millions over time.

And five battery projects in conjunction with Tesla and under a State program have been approved, including one at the County Health Agency at Johnson and Bishop in SLO, and across the street at the Public Health Building.

And in September, the Supervisors approved so-called “Power Pack Systems” made by Tesla, Inc. be installed at the Lake Nacimiento Intake Pump Station, the Rocky Canyon Pump Station, and the Lopez Water Treatment Plant under the “California Self-Generation Incentive Program,” or SGIP.
Facilities Face PSPS

County Public Works runs these key water facilities and is responsible for planning for maintenance and for what to do in case of emergencies, which today includes so-called, “Public Safety Power Shutoffs” or PSPS, the practice by utility companies to shut down the power grid in areas threatened by wildfire or in danger of failure due to high-winds and other extreme weather conditions.
In the past, such weather events have knocked down power lines and sparked major fires, most notably the November 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., which nearly destroyed the entire town and killed 86 people.

Secrest said in a report, “PG&E has recommended planning for multiple-day electric outages. Battery energy storage systems provide resiliency to facilities by providing them with a power source during an electrical disruption. In the case of a PSPS or other outage event, backup power is essential for critical County services to continue to be provided to residents.”
Battery Projects Worth Millions

These battery projects cost millions but won’t cost the County one thin dime thanks to the SGIP program.
The County tried before to get backup systems built but could never find the money until earlier this summer.
“In the summer of 2020,” Secrest said, “staff was contacted by Tesla Energy about the SGIP and Tesla’s battery energy storage installations.”

They reviewed “Tesla’s experience with customers like the County, as well as the technical expertise with the SGIP application, and design, engineering, and ability to directly manufacturer and install the battery storage system.”

They looked at many County facilities and decided upon the three lake sites. “The three sites are critical parts of County systems that provide drinking water to the cities of Paso Robles, Atascadero, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, and Pismo Beach, and the unincorporated towns of Templeton, Santa Margarita Ranch, Oceano, Avila Beach and Shell Beach.”
The contract with Tesla is for 10 years and the grants cover the entire costs. When the contract is up, the County will own the systems. Annual maintenance is estimated at $4,500 a year.
And when the batteries are worn out, Tesla will recycle them at its facility in Nevada at no cost to the County.
These are not cheap systems. The Lake Nacimiento system would cost $2.2 million and save the County $109,000 a year in electric bills.

At Lopez Lake, the system is worth $1.3M, and saves $65,500 a year.
The Rocky Canyon project is worth $2.2M, saves $55,000 a year.
If these projects go well, the County has other sites that could come under the grant program.

Dairy Creek Project
The Dairy Creek and Social Services projects are being done through an “Energy Savings Agreement” (ESA) with Forefront Power, an energy company that will install and operate the solar carports, selling the energy to the County at a discount over utility rates.
“An ESA,” Secrest said, “allows a third-party solar developer to finance, design, construct, operate, and maintain a solar installation that the host receives and purchases energy from at a specified rate.

“PG&E continues to provide electricity services to the site for any consumption that is not covered by the solar installation. This procurement mechanism also allows the County to procure solar with no upfront capital.”
The ESA contracts expire in 20 years, Secrest said. “At the end of the term, the County has the option to renew the ESA, purchase the system, or have ForeFront Power remove the system at no cost to the County.”

She added that the carport panels would cut the County’s electricity expenses through offsetting more than 80 percent of the energy consumption at the two sites.
Solar Farm Will Save Millions
Perhaps the most exciting and easily seen project is the solar farm on a vacant parcel behind the County Honor Farm running parallel to Hwy 1.

That 6-acre solar farm, expected to go online in 2021, is one-fourth the size of a solar farm Cal Poly installed by CMC, Secrest told Estero Bay News.
The 1.2MW facility covers about 6 acres and involves 61 rows of solar arrays, each row containing three arrays of 18 panels each, for a total of 3,294 “modules” of solar panels. Each panel, made in Vietnam, can generate 370 watts (9 amps) of energy.
It too is not going to cost the County anything up front, and Forefront Power is also the contractor. Secrest said all the costs are being rolled into a set price per kilowatt that she said would be far less than what the County pays PG&E.

The solar farm will hook into existing power lines that cross overhead and PG&E will install a re-closure facility that will modulate the solar power supply to make that connection under another agreement reached in 2017.
The solar farm will “benefit 18 electric meters, which support 12 facilities at the County Operations Center [COC],” she said. The installation is estimated to offset approximately 13% of the County’s total energy usage and 11% of total energy costs.
The facilities that will benefit are: Maintenance Bldg. 1200; the Main, West and Women’s Jails; Juvenile Hall; jail trailer (a medical facility); Honor Farm; Sheriff’s Detective and Storage Buildings; the fleet garage; Information Services; Emergency Operations Center; and Department of Animal Services.
State SPURRs Solar Projects
Back in Fall 2017, Secrest said, they learned about a joint powers authority, “The School Project for Utility Rate Reduction” or SPURR that involves over 200 school districts, cities, counties, community colleges and other public agencies.
One of SPURR’s programs is the “Renewable Energy Aggregated Procurement” or REAP Program. The County’s solar farm is under this program.

The County also signed an agreement in 2017 with PG&E to have the company connect any solar projects the County might pursue and PG&E is in the process of connecting the Oklahoma Avenue Solar Farm to its distribution system, essentially installing a switch yard at the site.

The power will not go directly to the various County facilities but rather be absorbed into PG&E’s system and the electricity meted out at the set price.
And while the solar farm lies mostly hidden behind a fence with wooden slats, the County still plans to plant trees along the side to further screen it from the highway.
Seeing Significant Savings

The County currently pays some 23-cents per kilowatt through PG&E and the new rate with the solar farm will be $0.10/KW a gross savings of some $165,000 a year and the savings will start immediately owing to the zero capital investment.

Over 20 years, the County expects to save $5.1 million and offset 73.9 million pounds of carbon dioxide, equal to the amount of carbon contained in 39,400 acres of forest.

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