Soaking up sun: City, community join for latest solar project at Fire Station No. 3

November 2012

interns and major

Staci Matlock | The New Mexican
Posted: Friday, November 09, 2012 - 1

If the city of Santa Fe’s energy specialist, Nick Schiavo, had his way, all the electricity needed to power municipal buildings would come from renewable energy.

But that would take more rooftops, land and money than the city can drum up at the moment. Still, with support from city officials, local businesses and the community, Schiavo said the city is on track to rely on solar for 20 percent of the total power demand used by the municipality by next year.

Currently, the city has a little more than 2.5 megawatts of installed direct current available, mostly from solar photovoltaic panels. Planned solar power systems will add another 1.7 megawatts in the next year.

All the solar photovoltaic systems are tied into the electric grid managed by Public Service Company of New Mexico. The solar power is tracked separately and reduces the city’s electric bill from PNM. It also reduces the amount of electricity the city needs from PNM’s coal-fired power plants.

The latest addition is at the city’s Fire Station No. 3 on Cerrillos Road, which now sports 62 solar photovoltaic panels on the facility’s roof and on ground trackers. The panels will produce about 28,000 kilowatt-hours of power a year, or about a third of the electricity used at the facility.

High school students, local businesses and the nonprofit group New Energy Economy raised money for the system, which was installed by Santa Fe-based Positive Energy. The project also was used to train students from Santa Fe Community College’s green technology program.

Other solar projects are located at the city’s wastewater treatment facility, at the joint city-county river diversion project near the Rio Grande, at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center and at the municipal transit yard. Most of the solar photovoltaic projects cost the city almost nothing to install. Third-party companies, such as SunEdison, leased space from the city and installed the systems.

The companies get solar tax credits for which the city doesn’t qualify. In turn, the city doesn’t have to pay up front to install the systems but can purchase the electricity produced at a set rate. The city will be able to buy the systems from the companies after 11 years “at a greatly reduced price from the original construction cost,” Schiavo said. “I still think it is a great investment for the city to buy at that juncture.”

Schiavo estimates the solar power systems save the city more than $200,000 a year.

The city and county, which jointly own and manage the Buckman Direct Diversion Project at the Rio Grande, intend to install a second solar PV system next year but will purchase the panels outright. The system will help power a booster station that pumps the water 1,100 feet uphill from the Rio Grande and through 11 miles of pipeline to a treatment plant. Funding for the project is coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the New Mexico Finance Authority.

Schiavo said he intends to buy solar panels outright to install on parking covers at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center as well. “Costs have come down considerably for panels,” he said. Five years ago, PV cost about $10 per installed watt. The price now is about $3 per watt.

He’s looked at wind power and geothermal, but right now solar remains the most viable renewable-energy option for Santa Fe. “At the end of the day, we get such good sun, that’s where we should keep putting our money,” he said.

Santa Fe County also is adding solar to the new courthouse under construction on Sandoval Street. The county’s energy specialist, Erik Aaboe, said Positive Energy will install a 100-kilowatt system on the roof that will supply about 20 percent of the building’s electrical needs. The total cost of the project is $350,000, and Aaboe estimates a 5 percent rate of return on the investment from the offset cost of buying PNM’s electricity and from a credit paid by the company.

Aaboe said the county’s bigger focus right now is reducing the energy used in existing buildings. As heating, cooling and lighting equipment wears out, the county is buying more energy-efficient replacements.

There is only so much public roof space and public open space available to install renewable-energy systems. Schiavo is looking at what other towns, such as Taos, are doing to increase renewable energy after available municipal roof space is used. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in Taos is trying an unusual community solar project that Schiavo thinks might work in Santa Fe.

Third-party nonprofits that can’t take advantage of solar tax credits — such as schools and churches — offer roof space for a solar PV system. Residents purchase the solar panels and get the power. Kit Carson manages and maintains the system. Currently, a resident can buy a panel for about $845, far below what it would cost to install a complete system on their own rooftop.

Schiavo said he plans to meet with PNM and discuss Santa Fe’s options.

PNM has 527 customers in Santa Fe who have their own solar power systems interconnected to the utility’s grid, with a capacity of 1.5 megawatts of electricity, and 40 applications are pending. Statewide, more than 2,800 solar photovoltaic systems are interconnected with the utility’s grid, with a power capacity of 17 megawatts. Another 400 applications are pending for the program, according to PNM. “The program has experienced double-digit growth since 2006,” said Susan Sponar, PNM spokeswoman.

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