18 Feb In the news: The Union Newspaper
Penn Valley Fire fitted with solar panels
It takes a lot of electricity to save lives.
The cost to power first responder equipment had skyrocketed in recent years for Penn Valley Fire Protection District, totaling as much as $1500 per month.
Late last year, a crew from California Solar installed 72 SunPower 435W panels atop Station 43, located on Spenceville Road in Penn Valley. The decision is the most conservative and efficient use of taxpayers’ money, said Fire Chief Don Wagner.
“It’s taxpayer money. Basically whatever we spend money on, we’re spending what people have paid taxes on,” said Wagner. When the five-member citizen-elected board took a close look at the cost to power all the equipment used by its three fire stations serving 92 square miles in Western Nevada County, it became clear that something had to give. Going solar was the answer.
Alternative energy is becoming a more common occurrence in the rural community known for its ranching and agrarian lifestyle. Just down the street, solar arrays can be spotted on the gas pump rooftops at the “Taco Shell” (a gas station with a Taco Bell inside) and another local resident has gone completely off grid. “There seems to be more and more homes going solar. I think it’s a sign of the times,” said Wagner. Making the switch came with funding challenges for the public agency, but Chief Wagner was determined to make it happen despite the odds.
For the past 10 years, he tried various creative solutions to pay for a solar project, but each time grant and financing opportunities fell apart. The past few years, the district has looked into ways to reduce their energy usage by making efforts like installing LED lights. With energy costs continuing to rise, they reached a wall of how far they could go toward efficiency. “We can only shed so much. There was nowhere left to cut in our energy savings plan,” said Wagner.
When the board gave the green light to go solar, the district was able to combine a $30,000 trust donation from an anonymous donor in Lake Wildwood and money from the district’s equipment fund to pay for the project. An initial $85,000 investment will pay for itself in seven and a half years. “That frees money to be used for other purposes,” said Wagner. The solar is offsetting two meters at the downtown Penn Valley Station 43. Power is used to charge batteries for things like radios, heart monitors and ambulance computers. Penn Valley Fire Protection District employs twelve full-time career fire personnel.
The panels produce electricity even on a cloudy day and help shade the sunniest roofs, reducing air conditioning use and prolonging the lifespan of roofing materials. When the solar electrical system is paid off, the fire district will begin to earn money each month for things like hiring more firefighters, purchasing new apparatus, and staff training. As the cost of PG&E goes up, the district’s $800 average monthly savings will increase, too.
“SunPower panels have a unique industry-leading 25-year warranty that guarantees after 25 yrs they will still be producing at least 92 percent of what they did in Year One,” said Martin Webb, Cal Solar’s Commercial Sales Manager.
Despite the funding challenges for public agencies, California Solar is no stranger to local schools, cities and parks. In 2008, the Grass Valley-based company worked with the City of Nevada City to install a system on top of City Hall, the swimming pool at Pioneer Park and the City Maintenance Yard on Red Dog Road. In May, crews will install a solar carport at Western Gateway Park in Penn Valley.
“The challenge for public agencies seeking financing for solar is the fact that most financing is secured by a property – a home or a business – and in the event of a default, the lender can repossess the property. Lenders have turned away our public works projects because they do not see a way to repossess a public property, therefore they feel there is no way to secure a loan,” said Webb.
Government funding through grant and loan programs can be time consuming and bureaucratic, with long wait times for approval. Because of this, nearly all of Cal Solar public agency projects have been cash purchases. “It does need to change. There is no organized movement I know of that is focused on how to make it easier. Some agencies issue bonds or use other unique and creative ways to access funding. Otherwise, the challenge is how to provide some sort of security to a lender, that has some teeth behind it,” said Webb.
Besides fires, Penn Valley Fire District responds to road and swift water rescues, hazardous material spills, and all paramedic calls in Penn Valley, Lake Wildwood, Kentucky Flat, Mooney Flat and Big Oak areas. Fire Districts are supported by special assessments of property taxes, ambulance transport revenue and the State Proposition 172 funnel.
California Solar recently helped Peardale Chicago Park Fire Protection District go solar, too. With six fire districts and three fire departments in Nevada County, there is room for others to follow suit. “Hopefully others will follow. Its free electricity from the sun. It’s definitely renewable. You’re looking at the future,” said Wagner.