Solar panels begin producing power

By KATELYN ROBERTS

Tucson’s inexhaustible sunlight is producing power at three Pima Community College campuses.

Solar panel installation finished in January at the Community, Downtown and West campuses, along with the Maintenance and Security facility.

Power is produced through rented panels installed by SolarCity. The college then purchases the energy from SolarCity.

PCC signed a 25-year-contract with SolarCity and Solon last year. SolarCity finances Solon, another local solar power provider.

The dual-purpose panels utilize the climate’s renewable sunlight while creating shaded parking spots for vehicles.

Trees removed during the first phase of Pima’s switch to solar will be replaced by June 30, 2017 with help from Solon and Solar City.

The companies are working with the college to identify the best locations for the new trees.

Finances motivated Pima’s entry into solar power, according to Bill Ward, vice chancellor of facilities and college police.

The college is not reaping tax incentive benefits because it rents the equipment, but expects to generate savings over time.

“Over time” is the operative phrase.

Solar power incentives focus on money saved rather than significantly lower energy bills. Electricity prices rose 2.5 percent each year from 2000 to 2006, and are following a steady upward trend.

Because rates continue to rise, Ward said monthly savings will increase. The college has estimated savings between $6-8 million over the contract’s lifetime.

“At the time of installation, the cost of power is expected to be just slightly below grid-tied power,” he said via email. “Estimating cost without solar and comparing it to actual cost with solar is very difficult.”

Savings will be applied to “overall budget cost reduction,” he added. “The college can plan for the best way to utilize the reduced energy costs.”

Ward explained there are four different rates depending on time of year and amount of power consumed, along with charges and taxes, both flat and percentages.

“You can see why our utility database needs to be updated to really compare the solar savings,” he said.

Ward said Pima’s cost comparison will be released in the next few months.

Despite the lack of solid figures, Ward said the college is pleased with its solar experiment. “Solon and SolarCity are performing to our expectations, which are very high,” he said.

Saving money isn’t the only reason Pima made the decision to go solar.

“Energy efficiency is always a consideration when the college is reviewing, purchasing or maintaining equipment and systems,” Ward said.

Pima is switching to LED lighting and working with Tucson Electric Power on energy-saving incentives. Even urinals are undergoing water use evaluation.

Electrical use had decreased 12 percent, natural gas use is down 24 percent and water use is 14 percent lower this year compared to the previous two years, Ward said.

The college created a new energy resource manager position last year, and hired David Davis in March 2015 at an annual salary of $72,617.

He’s is a certified energy manager who focused on instrumentation and monitoring in his previous position at SunEdison, a solar company similar to SolarCity.

“Davis has a wealth of knowledge and has worked both in the solar services industry and for an electric utility company, and is very familiar with this technology,” Ward said.

Davis would like to see more solar units installed. “I’m definitely a supporter of solar technology,” he said.

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