The New Mexican: Solar Projects in the Works

November 2011

Two more buildings owned by the city of Santa Fe would generate electricity through solar energy if officials approve agreements next week, and a third project with a different funding plan could also be in the pipeline.

Photovoltaic panels at the convention center downtown and a composting facility at the wastewater treatment plant off Airport Road are the latest public-private partnership projects for renewable energy proposed in local government.

Solar panels are already offsetting power use at another part of the wastewater treatment plant, at the city’s transit yard on Siler Road and at the joint city-county Buckman Direct Diversion water project.

Like the bus-yard panels, the two newest projects recommended by the city’s Housing and Community Development Department would be constructed by Santa Fe-based Positive Energy contractors. But unlike previous projects, the city would lend the company $462,000 — about 60 percent of the estimated $770,000 construction cost for the pair — with the expectation that the cash is repaid with 2 percent interest in 15 to 20 years.

The private company and its San Francisco-based financing partners at Cripple Creek Solarwould also retain ownership of the structures and a responsibility to operate them, but the city would get the benefit of a cheaper power source than from the monopoly power company.

The other difference between the two proposed facilities and previous projects is that this time the city will keep cash generated by payments for Renewable Energy Credits by Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

While the 100-kilowatt array at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center is expected to make up about 13 percent of the energy used there in a year, the same-size project at the composting facility will produce 75 percent of the power that operation needs. The composting facility combines sludge from the wastewater treatment process with wood chips to produce a soil amendment.

Together, the two projects will avoid the generation of 6,500 tons of carbon dioxide over the next two years, according to staff estimates. A tentative project schedule calls for the first to be online next September.

The math pencils out for Nick Schiavo, Housing and Community Development Department director, who notes that the city typically gets low-interest returns on its reserve accounts.

Lending money to the local company that will be repaid at a higher interest rate is a good deal, he said, especially in light of the idea that it also saves about $3,000 the first year on energy bills. With electricity costs expected to increase, those savings could multiply, Schiavo said.

Another solar panel project at a city facility could have an entirely different funding plan. New Energy Economy, a nonprofit based in Santa Fe, is trying to raise $40,000 in cash to front half the cost of a small photovoltaic system for Fire Station 3 on Cerrillos Road near Ashbaugh Park.

“PNM has had success with their [public relations] that frames solar as too expensive and not reliable,” said nonprofit director Mariel Nanasi, “so we thought the best way to show that that’s not true it to really promote these projects.”

New Energy Economy raised $55,000 to put in photovoltaic panels at a Chapter House in Navajo Nation this spring, and even without a hard launch of its Santa Fe project has already collected some money and promises for support, she said.

Having the highly visible location at a firehouse on the city’s main drag means lots of locals will understand the big picture, she said.

“It makes the link between the epic wildfires that we saw and the climate change that we are experiencing and what is possible,” she said.

City Councilor Chris Calvert is planning to introduce a resolution before the City Council next week that will formalize the idea that if the group raises the money, the city will pay the other half of the construction cost. Money is available in his department budget, Schiavo said, from nearly $75,000 in rebates the city earned for lighting retrofits in several facilities this year.

Calvert said he’s been a backer of the city’s solar projects because they make economic sense with fixed power costs and local job creation and also contribute to Santa Fe’s goals of reducing greenhouse gases. The north-side District 1 councilor said he’s never heard criticism from his constituents about the city’s solar projects, and expects that the idea of having the nonprofit chip in will be well received.

“I don’t have any problem with it if they want to ante up some money to further a goal that they share with us, that is fine with me. It just helps us get that many more projects done,” he said.

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