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The Solar Power of San Jose


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Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series looking at the environmental efforts of the city of San Jose, California.

By Debra Atlas

SAN JOSE, CA — Solar energy is prominent in the City of San Jose. Large solar arrays adorn the airport, the city parking garage, and the central service yard. The City Council recently signed off on a new power purchase agreement with SolarCity to receive four megawatts of the renewable energy source for its 28 city facilities and parking areas.

Even San Jose City Hall boasts solar panels. A small, one-kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic system sits on the roof of City Hall, which was installed by Armageddon Energy, a participant in the city’s clean-tech incubator. This allows the company “to test their product, get some real life experience with this system, then hopefully be able to scale up, hire more people,” says Mike Foster, who manages the city’s community energy efficiency solar and green building program.

Over the past two years, as part of San Jose’s Green Vision Plan, the city has worked to raise the public’s awareness about this clean energy source, increase the number of installations, and provide more opportunities for consumers and businesses to purchase or invest in green power.

On October 1, San Jose participated in the National Solar Tour. The city partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy; local companies, including Clean Solar, REC Solar, RPS Solar, and SunWize; and San Jose residents to help host this year’s tour of San Jose homes with solar panels installed.

“The tour made it easy for neighbors to talk with neighbors about solar, its cost, rebates, etcetera,” says Foster.

Almost 400 people went on the self-guided tour of about a dozen homes all around San Jose. Homes featured different types of solar arrays using different kinds of technology. Four renewable energy companies were featured on the tour.

Homeowners had different reasons for installing the product—economic, environmental, or simply philosophical, Foster says.

For homeowner Mary Tucker, who also is energy manager for the City of San Jose, participating in the solar tour was an opportunity to answer the questions of other homeowners such as why she installed her solar energy system, how long she’d had it, and how she financed it.

In 2003, Tucker installed solar on her 102-year-old bungalow that sits in the heart of downtown. Her home is a “contributing house” in a federally designated historical area, so she had to convince the historic commission with pictures of what it would look like. She got the job done. Tucker installed 18 solar panels that produce 2.6 kW.

The performance of solar panels is better today, she says. “I wouldn’t need as many today.”

When it comes to installing the product, Tucker says there are key factors to consider beforehand. “Energy efficiency is first. Make sure you’ve gotten your energy bill as low as you possibly can first,” she says. Get Energy Star appliances, LED bulbs, and reduce the amount of energy you need to produce, Tucker advises.

Next, look at the time it takes for the investment to pay off. For Tucker, it took eight years, although she was able to get a 50-percent rebate from the California Energy Commission before then. Tucker says that a lot of other financing options are out there now, including power purchase agreements.

A few companies offer solar purchase agreements in California. The city is using these to install solar on up to 38 of their municipal buildings, an installation that is projected to save approximately $5.7 million over the next 20 years.

For Tucker, reducing her energy bill also was important. Currently she pays only $4 a month to be connected to the grid. On an annual basis, she nets zero, meaning she produces more energy in the summer, so she gets a credit in the winter.

The last key factor that motivated Tucker was her grandchildren, specifically leaving a healthier environment for them. “I wanted to be sure I was contributing to reducing the fossil fuels we’re using,” she says.

In 2003, there were not as many programs and resources as are available now through the Department of Energy, the Solar America City Program, and the city itself, Tucker adds.

“Solar is more affordable than ever,” says Foster. “The technology is here, and now is the time to do it.”

For related stories:
Northern California City Reinvents Itself as Green
San Jose’s Green Vision
Solar Clovers and Gadgets Galore

Check out more articles by Debra Atlas.

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