Heidi Zamzow:
Solar energy potential gains traction locally

Monterey County Herald
By Heidi Zamzow, Guest commentary

POSTED: 12/12/14, 4:25 PM PST

Scotland now gets more of its energy from renewables than from coal, gas and nuclear sources combined. Here in the U.S., the Golden State continues to lead the charge in photovoltaics, more than doubling its already sizable solar capacity in the last two years. Yolo County recently became “grid positive,” producing far more power from solar than it uses. And Stanford researchers propose California could be powered with 100 percent renewables (half from solar) by 2050 while netting 220,000 new jobs and saving the state $150 billion per year.

Yet in Monterey County, only a handful of solar installations are in place — a fraction of projected capacity. Daunted by high upfront costs and a complex landscape of financing, technology and market drivers, small municipalities with limited resources may turn a blind eye to the sunny prospect of energy independence, despite chafing under the budget burn brought on by rising utility bills.

While some may be feeling the heat, others are seeing the light. Last month, representatives from 18 local and regional agencies attended “The Economics of Solar,” an invitation-only forum which brought together decision-makers and experts with the knowledge needed to turn Monterey County into a solar powerhouse. The event was conceived and organized by Communities for Sustainable Monterey County (CSMC), an all-volunteer grassroots nonprofit whose mission is to “meet the challenge of declining resources and climate change by helping communities transition to sustainable practices.” CSMC’s bold goal is to see public buildings throughout the county generating their own power from solar panels. Any publicly owned site might do: schools, libraries, senior centers, town halls, police stations, parking lots. The forum focused on the economic benefits of switching to renewables using proven strategies that can be adapted by virtually any organization, regardless of size. The game changer? Regional collaboration.

Collaborative procurement has become the go-to approach for taking on the financial and technical challenges to public investment in solar energy. When agencies coordinate resources and put multiple sites out for bid, economies of scale are captured on every level, from competitive bidding to project management. Savings in administrative costs can be as great as 70 percent. Standardized documents, financing, and installation are more efficient, so communities achieve their goals more quickly and easily.

Silicon Valley is already seeing the benefits of such collaboration. In 2012, the region successfully completed the largest multi-agency procurement of renewable power in the nation, whittling installed cost per watt to as little as $0.08 per kilowatt-hour, far below the going rate with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. Collectively, the project expects to generate roughly $70 million in local economic activity and more than 300 jobs. The estimated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is equivalent to planting 2,800 acres of trees.

Since CSMC’s November forum, a flurry of activity has sprung up on the solar front. Elected officials and public agencies have begun to recognize a golden opportunity to don the mantle of forward-thinking leadership under the cover of negligible risk to their constituents. Participants can fully evaluate pros and cons before committing any resources to the procurement effort. A regional solar project provides a way to fulfill fiduciary responsibilities to guard the public coffers and meet mandates for reducing emissions at the same time.

If our community leaders want to get with the program, however, they’d better hurry. The target closing date for expressing interest (by submitting a simple site survey) is Dec. 19, and project coordinators plan to launch the initiative by the end of January 2015.

Heidi Zamzow is the communications and outreach coordinator for Sustainable Pacific Grove, one of CSMC’s eight member groups. For more on the regional collaborative, see solarroadmap.com/seed2.

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