It's the Summer of Sun in Innovative California County

It's the Summer of Sun in Innovative California County

Alameda County, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, is part of California’s busiest urban area. It is established as a major port for the Pacific Rim trade; its diverse economic base includes manufacturing, services, and wholesale and retail businesses. And Alameda County is a leader in reducing energy consumption at its own facilities. Today, in an era of wholesale price volatility, rolling blackouts, and growing concerns over global climate change, the County’s efforts to ease reliance upon California’s stressed grid include the installation of the nation’s largest rooftop solar photovoltaics system.

By integrating rooftop solar PV panels with energy efficiency upgrades and state-of-the-art energy management software, Alameda County reduces its peak power consumption by 20% without spending a dime from its general fund. According to County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, during the previous several years, Alameda County has reduced electricity use by more than 30%.

Such efforts mean Alameda County is an alternative energy success story, and the story is just starting to get interesting.

A Bright Idea

Matt Muniz has been Alameda County’s energy guru since 1993. His first project was replacing the lighting ballasts at the Santa Rita Jail, located on the sunny eastern fringes of the county line near Dublin. And it paid off. The project reduced electricity costs by a third at Santa Rita Jail.

Following that achievement, Muniz spent more than $2 million from Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) “power savers” demand-side management program to retrofit inefficient lighting systems in 70% of AC’s buildings – a huge undertaking, as the County owns a courthouse, administration buildings, jails, hospitals, social service structures and other public buildings that, together, represented 15 MW of peak electricity consumption. All told, Alameda County saves an estimated $ 4million in lighting retrofit projects and HVAC upgrades funded under “power savers” and other utility programs.

A Marriage Between Solar and Efficiency

Elsewhere in Alameda County, Berkeley-based PowerLight Corporation recently inked a joint venture with Viron Energy Services, a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm recently purchased by CMS Energy. PowerLight and CMS Viron Energy Services joined forces to showcase the synergy between solar photovoltaics and state-of-the-art energy-efficiency devices and controls. Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail again took center stage, this time as a joint project serving as a model for other local governments.

How it worked:

By linking a 642-kilowatt PV system with patented R-11 rigid polystyrene foam roofing insulation, PowerLight’s PowerGuard tiles are expected to generate 800,000 kilowatt hours of clean summer peak electricity while reducing heating and cooling requirements. Moreover, PowerGuard tiles do not require perforations of the roof, and instead protect the roof membrane from weather and ultraviolet radiation, delivering additional economic benefits to the County.

Alameda County hopes to more than double its solar PV capacity by covering all 18 Santa Rita Jail housing units with PowerGuard. It also is weighing installing solar PV on three buildings it owns in Oakland. If all goes as developers hope, Alameda County’s solar PV commitment could expand to 1.2 MW.

Efficiency And Smarter Controls

CMS Viron Energy Services will deliver 1 million KWh in electricity savings primarily from replacing an inefficient chiller with a new 850-ton, high-efficiency, variable-speed chiller that does not rely upon the CFCs that contribute to atmospheric ozone depletion. The incumbent chilled-water pumping system pushed water through both chillers regardless of cooling needs. The new variable speed drive will respond directly to the precise real-time cooling requirements needed to deliver chilled water, and won’t waste energy and other resources operating all the time at full bore.

As part of the project, a new computerized energy management system, dubbed UtilityVision, automatically will reduce power consumption during peaks in response to short-term fluctuations in solar fuel caused by weather conditions such as cloud cover. For example, if clouds block the sun for five minutes on a summer afternoon, UtilityVision will reduce power consumption proportionately so that no additional purchases of expensive peak priced electricity are necessary. Once the cloud passes, and solar electricity generation is resumed at maximum levels, the energy management software will make corresponding adjustments to power consumption.

Such sophisticated smart-energy controls benefit consumers throughout California by reducing purchases of grid power during times of the tightest supply and highest demand. This is an especially critical concern in the Tri-Valley Transmission Line area, a region that includes the City of Dublin in Alameda County.

Benefits To Alameda County and California

The alliance between PowerLight and Viron will save Alameda County approximately $275,000 annually over the next 25 years. Given that prices for purchased grid power for customers the size of Alameda County are likely to rise, the total savings could exceed the $7 million estimate over the life of the project that were calculated based on current electricity rates.

Other benefits:
  • Environment. The 642 kilowatt solar PV system and energy-efficiency improvements will help AC save 9 million pounds of carbon dioxide, a global climate change gas, and 2,900 pounds of the nitrogen oxides that contribute to urban smog, a primary cause of asthma and other respiratory diseases.
  • Accountability and transparency. The project’s performance data will be posted on the Internet so that other local governments and commercial customers can review and analyze the performance of both solar PV system and energy efficiency measures. Several local governments, among them the cities of San Jose, Santa Rosa, Livermore, and Santa Clara County, have approached Alameda County to learn more about how solar PV and energy efficiency work together, and how the county financed these innovations without tapping into its general fund.
Lessons For Other Local Governments

Much of the innovation of the Santa Rita Jail project stems from integrating solar PV with energy efficiency and smart energy management systems. By re-roofing, buying and installing PowerGuard tiles, and incorporating energy efficiency upgrades concurrently, administrative costs were lower than if the projects had been done piecemeal.

Perhaps Alameda County’s most impressive energy accomplishment has been the high level of public-goods funding that Muniz captured to support this project. As this project provides substantial public benefits in the form of reduced peak electricity consumption in a region hampered by severe transmission constraints, these substantial public goods funds appear to be justified.

Though the project cost for Alameda County was approximately $4 million on paper, the project took in financial incentives:
  • $2.5 million from the California Energy Commission Emerging Renewable Buy-Down Rebates Program. Originally, Alameda County was able to secure this funding at the rate of 2.50 per watt. However, the Energy Commission recently raised this rebate amount to $4.50 per watt. Since this increase is retroactive to February 2001, Alameda County more than doubled the amount of funding received under this program.
  • $1 million fixed 6% interest loan from the California Energy Commission Energy Efficiency Financing Program (which will be paid off by avoided electricity cost savings over the next 11 years);
  • $425,000 from the California Energy Commission’s AB 970 funds. This legislation authorized the spending of $50 million for energy projects that reduce the state’s demand for electricity this summer.
  • CMS Viron Energy Services secured $250,000 from PG&E under its “cross-cutting demand” program.
  • The balance of funds came from pre-existing county budget authorizations for roofing and energy projects.

Peter Asmus is author of Reaping The Wind, a new book published by Island Press, and is a senior associate with the AHC Group of Saratoga, New York, a consulting firm offering strategic advice on environmental matters to many of the nation's leading corporations.