By Racquel Palmese
Legislators in Sacramento are considering an array of bills that seek to clear the way for schools and colleges to install renewable energy systems, addressing a thicket of complicated rules and regulations governing the relationship between utilities and their customers that can stand in the way of solar projects. Revising these rules now, while renewables represent only a tiny fraction of total electricity generation in California, is crucial.
Aaron Jobson, a founding board member of the School Energy Coalition, member of the Evergreen Community College BIM Advisory Board and principal with Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, speaks with Green Technology about the challenges faced by school and community college districts attempting to implement solar energy projects and legislation that could help smooth the path. Jobson will further address these issues as part of the panel, “Impacts of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Legislation on California Schools,” on September 27 at the Green California Schools Summit.
What is the School Energy Coalition?
We started the organization about a year ago on behalf of K-12 school districts and community college school districts, to address energy efficiency and renewable energy issues at the state level. We partner with organizations like CASH [the Coalition for Adequate School Housing] and others who are working on behalf of school districts. We’ve been involved in helping to push forward pieces of legislation over the past year.
What’s an example of legislation you’re involved with?
SB 594 is one example. It has to do with some of the issues that were brought up in the Schools of the Future report. Schools are unique users of energy. They’re closed 2–2 ½ months out of the year, depending on the school, and they happen to be closed during times when most buildings use the most energy, during the summer. Schools often have been built in pieces over time, so that means that a lot of school sites have multiple meters. The way that the rules are now, you have to build one stand-alone solar system for each individual meter. What SB 594 would do is allow for one solar installation for all the meters on any contiguous piece of property.
For instance, one school district had one high school, one middle school and one elementary school that all shared one contiguous piece of property. There was also a big empty property that at one time was an ag farm for the high school, but it’s been just empty land for a long time. It would have made the most economic sense to just build a large solar farm on that field to feed all three of those schools. There are probably five or six electrical meters among the schools, so the way the regulations are written now, it can’t be done.
We had to build an individual system for each of the meters on those campuses, and that meant significant additional cost for that district and time. They had to put them on carports and in parking lots because they didn’t have available land next to each meter. This is very typical. We have worked on about 12 megawatts of power for K-12 schools, and probably out of the 20-25 different school sites about half of them had such problems. Some of them have one large electric meter and two or three small ones that may have been installed when they put in a few portables. So they just build one [solar installation] to offset the largest meter, and then it’s not economically feasible to build installations for the smaller meters.
Schools face a lot of challenges, and not just schools but places like agricultural users, wineries, places that have similar kinds of problems because they have multiple meters scattered around large parcels of land. So SB 594 is meant to address those issues and allow property owners to take all of the electricity usage on a whole site and use one point of connection to offset it all. We tried pushing the same thing through as just changes in interpretations of regulations at the California Public Utilities Commission, but they weren’t willing to make that change for legal reasons. So we had to go the route of trying to get legislative support.
It doesn’t sound like this should be controversial. Is there any opposition?
We were able to get it passed on a 13–0 vote out of committee and it’s now in the appropriations process. That was good, but it took a lot of work to get there. One of the basic regulatory foundations of solar projects, especially for schools, is called net metering, which allows you to get credit for the times when you produce more energy than you need, and offset that against times when you use more energy than you produce. With net metering, you basically make those credits and costs offset each other on an annual basis.
There have been various efforts to change some of those rules. There’s a cap on how many projects can be done under those rules, and we’re starting to approach that cap, depending on how it’s interpreted. There’s starting to be discussion about what to do when we reach that cap. The utilities are, in a lot of cases, arguing against this. Their stated reasons are mostly about fairness and not making other people who do not have solar pay for the infrastructure for the solar customers. It can get really complicated and technical about whether that’s a valid argument or not, and frankly, it’s above my level of expertise. But they are well funded and have a lot of access.
Do you take this as an effort to discourage solar?
I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there are some legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, but most of the utilities’ concerns would only become problematic if we had ten times more solar than we do right now. That may be more of what they are trying to do - to make sure things are set up right now, so that everything still works and is fair as the renewable energy infrastructure and use of renewables grow.
That ten-fold increase could happen pretty fast, couldn’t it?
It could, yes, and hopefully will. I think that there are other issues as well. Renewable energy generation has to be balanced with other kinds of energy generation. Making sure that happens; making sure that people who don’t pay electricity bills still pay their share to keep the grid going is an important issue. That’s a lot of the argument from the utilities and also organizations that represent large electricity rate payers - making sure that everyone pays their fair share. Right now solar power represents less than one percent of the energy produced in California, a very small fraction right now so it doesn’t really have that much of an impact.
What other bills are you working on?
SB 843 would allow for something called community self-generating renewable pilot projects. These would allow a city, or a city and a school district, to set up a solar farm and then sell the electricity it generated to people in the city. The city of Davis actually did this, and the bill is based on their program. Not every site is suitable for solar, we can’t put solar panels on every building or every site, so these projects would allow those sites that are not suitable to install their own solar panels to buy their energy, or a portion of it, from the community instead of just from the utilities. There are some issues with that as well, but it passed out of the Utilities and Commerce Committee with a 250 megawatt cap.
There’s another one, SB 1537, a one-year moratorium on any rate changes for net-metering customers. This is in response to San Diego Gas and Electric [SDG&E] when it presented what’s called a rate case. Every three years or so, electricity rates are reset, or renegotiated through the CPUC, and the utilities have to make a case for what they think the rates should be and why that’s fair. San Diego Gas and Electric proposed changing the way customers who have solar are billed. It’s been a big deal, and has to do with what I was alluding to before about adjusting the way the rules are structured around solar. What this would do is put a one-year moratorium on any of those changes and allow for some more time for those issues to be figured out and negotiated.
AB 1186 has to do with setting aside 10 percent of the revenue from a cap and trade program to go directly to K-12 energy efficiency grants, to develop funding for those kinds of projects.
That would be a windfall, wouldn’t it?
It would be great. I don’t know enough about the cap and trade program to know what kind of magnitude of funding that would actually be, but any funding would be great. [ed. note: According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) projected revenue from the auction of carbon credits would be between $660 million to upwards of approximately $3 billion in the 2012-2013 year.]
Finally, AB 1572 provides funding for energy projects through a mix of loans and existing programs. That’s being heard in the Natural Resources Committee.
I understand that your company, Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, works solely on school construction and renewable energy projects.
We design the occasional other project, but the majority of our work is in public schools. A lot of that has to do with energy efficiency, and we have done quite a few solar projects over the last three or four years.
Aside from the power purchase agreements and school bonds to pay for these projects, is there anything new that school districts are trying to finance solar power projects or green building?
No, in our experience there haven’t been a lot of desirable options out there for school districts to finance these projects. We worked for a long time, more than a year, for an organization called the National Development Council, which is a non-profit that helps fund projects. They’ve done a lot of work in housing with tax credits and things like that to come up with a way to access the federal renewable energy tax credits in a way that would be the most beneficial for the schools, but it didn’t end up coming to fruition for various reasons. It’s difficult to do.
We haven’t actually worked with a lot of power purchase agreements. Almost all the projects that we’ve done have been local bond funded, and obviously that’s the best way to finance these projects because it results in the quickest and greatest impact to the general fund. Power purchase agreements offer the opportunity to install a solar system, but you don’t get most of the benefit out of it. Most of the savings go towards paying off the cost of the system itself and paying the investors who own the solar.
Schools get a discount on their electricity cost and the guarantee that you know what your electricity costs will be for the next 20 years, which is great. But it is a small piece of what the actual benefits of the system could be. There aren’t a lot of options out there outside of general obligation bonds for a school district to make that investment. They’re not really able to leverage on their own energy savings to finance the construction over a long period of time because there just aren’t that many financing options available to districts.
Are you noticing an uptick in projects now?
We have a lot of projects that came out of 2010 general obligation bonds, and those are the projects we’ve been working on for the last couple of years. We haven’t seen many projects start up since then. I imagine there will be quite a few more that come out of the 2012 bonds, whether they come from the June or November elections. That’s how we see a lot of solar projects going forward. There are power purchase agreements that are being done, but we generally don’t get involved with those, because they are usually contracted directly with the solar companies that do those.
Are you building new schools?
We do have a couple of new elementary schools - San Clemente Elementary School [Larkspur-Corte Madera School District] and Highland Elementary School [West Contra Costa Unified School District] that are under design currently.
Are they green schools?
They have quite a few sustainable features to them. We actually use the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, the CHPS guidelines, and incorporate them into all the projects that we do in whatever way best suits that project. We try to make them all as green as possible. Those schools will both have some fairly significant green features, but they are both very early in design, so we’re still working all that out. I think both of them are being planned for future solar.
Is most of your work remodeling and upgrading existing schools now?
Yes, especially the last five years it’s been almost exclusively that. There haven’t been that many new schools. The elementary schools we’re working on now were kind of unexpected. There have been a lot of renovations or replacing existing buildings on campuses or adding buildings to existing campuses.
From your position as an architect as well as your work at SEC, do you see a good future for green schools?
Absolutely. I think that in my experience over the last ten years and our firm’s experience over the last 25, it’s been remarkable how much more part of the conversation green schools are. It’s usually a requirement, something they ask for in all of the requests for proposals now.
It used to be that we had to go in and kind of convince people that they should design their schools green, and that’s not really an issue anymore. Everyone’s onboard, and everyone’s kind of there. Particularly there’s a general understanding, too, about the financial benefits of incorporating energy efficiency and renewable energy into designs, especially in these times when general funds are being cut, that those kinds of opportunities can result in some pretty significant savings for general funds. I think that’s pretty widely understood now among school districts and being applied. So the motivation is not just to improve the facilities but to make them more efficient so that more money can go to educating students and not paying electric bills.