Solar project expected to save Santa Monica-Malibu schools $4M over time

SANTA MONICA - Santa Monica and Malibu school officials are expecting to save up to $4 million in electricity costs over the next 25 years with the planned installation of solar systems at nine elementary schools.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board's Sept. 1 approval of the contract "represents a successful culmination of a nearly two-year effort,'' said Virginia Hyatt, purchasing director for the district.

"We couldn't have arrived at this point without the support and active participation of a team of dedicated solar advocates,'' she said.

The city of Santa Monica initiated the effort in 2008 with a $20,000 grant for a solar potential study and development of a request for proposals.

The initial proposal led to a solar installer, but financial support for the project never materialized. The school district was seeking partners for a power purchase agreement, where an investor bears the costs and enjoys the tax benefits, and the district purchases the power from the system at a discounted rate.

"The whole effort just petered out after about six months,'' Hyatt said. "We were reluctant to give up, but it wasn't clear where to turn next.''

In mid-2009, Solar Santa Monica, the city's energy efficiency arm, re-entered the picture.

"The school district represented a big step forward towards the community's solar installation goals if we could get the PPA (power purchase agreement) to work,'' said SSM Director Susan Munves. "We had a history of successful collaboration on other energy initiatives, so we committed to another look.''

In mid-2009, ReGeneration Finance joined contractor PermaCity Solar and the project was back on track, as the combination of system size, starting price, escalation rate and buy-out option was finally agreed upon, she said.

"We are proud to have helped facilitate such an important development for our students and our community,'' Munves said. "It tested our mettle and our patience, and in the end we triumphed.''

The city of Santa Monica has set a goal for "energy neutrality'' by 2017. Solar Santa Monica seeks to advance that goal by encouraging energy efficiency upgrades and solar.

Since the program began in 2007, solar capacity in Santa Monica has tripled, according to Munves.