By Roy L Hales
Yolo is the only grid positive county government in the United States. They do not have an electric bill. Pacific Gas and Electric will have to pay Yolo around $500,000 a year for the surplus electricity it feeds the grid! Now Terry Vernon, deputy director of Yolo County General Services, wants to improve on that. He would like to add another renewable energy project that would boost the county’s revenues by another $5 million a year.
Vernon is very aware that his department leads the nation in solar deployment, but insists “Everything I have done can be duplicated. The project may serve as a model for other counties throughout California. It can be duplicated and implemented in some fashion to generate revenue and savings while reducing the carbon footprint and provide educational opportunities to the community.”
Santa Clara and Orange Counties have already started.
Yolo county is in a much different situation than it faced in 2010, when the recession dried up its tax revenues. The county had staff reductions, just like everyone else.
Bleak as the situation looked, Terry Vernon knew there was a way out. He had helped Stanford University put 39 megawatt (MW) into the grid in 1980’s. This time, however, he would have no capital to work with.
However he did have an excellent County Board of Supervisors to work with. Vernon describes them as “visionaries” and “businessmen who know how to get things done.” They adopted one of America’s first Climate Action Plans in 2011 and were very supportive of the project to reduce the county’s carbon footprint.
Vernon drew upon several sources for his first solar project, a 1-megawatt solar power system at the Yolo County Justice Campus.
“With the funding we secured as a result of the 2009 federal stimulus bill and the ($2.5 million) California Energy Commission loan, Yolo County has no out-of-pocket expenses to build this project, and will be net cash flow positive from the first day of the system’s operation,” said Yolo County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Helen M. Thomson.
Vernon used Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (QZABs) for his next project. He obtained them by partnering with the Yolo County Office of Education.
SunPower donated $1.25 million to the Yolo County Office of Education so that it could develop seven education academies, teaching students about climate change, environmental science, renewable energy technologies and energy auditing. As a result of its partnership with the Office of Education, Yolo County was able to secure $23 million in Qualified Zone Academy Bonds.
“The purpose of the bond program is to fund capital projects that are accompanied by an educational component that will benefit students,” Vernon explained. “For Yolo County’s solar projects, the bonds were structured as a lease payable from the County’s general fund with a term of 20 years. In addition, the bonds required a 10% match by a private or nonprofit entity (in this case SunPower). The benefit of utilizing these bonds to finance the County’s solar projects is twofold — first, the County will benefit from a direct federal subsidy; and second, the County Office of Education will benefit from the 10% contribution to implement the academies.”
“The real winners are the children of California,” he added.
Vernon had SunPower design and build two solar photovoltaic ground mounted systems. A 5.8 MW array in Grasslands Regional Park, Davis, and another 1 MW solar system on the Yolo County Justice Campus. Both systems began generating power for the County in July 2013. These two arrays generate enough electricity to totally eliminate the county’s electric bill.
They were also supposed to generate $438,000 in revenue, but after seven months Vernon found they were producing more energy than expected (see chart below). So now he tells reporters they should produce an annual profit of $500,000.
The county is now producing +152% of the electricity it needs with ground mounted solar arrays occupying approximately 30 acres of land.
All of the renewable energy projects are a zero capital investment and start generating revenue annually the very first year