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Mutuals consider plan for solar energy system

Private-public partnership could bring cheaper, greener electricity

By Sam Richards

Staff writer

(Friday, May 14, 12:30 p.m.): At least two Mutuals are considering a plan to explore partnering with a private equity firm to pay for and set up a system that could provide electric power to thousands of residences, at rates its proponents say would be cheaper, and greener, than PG&E.

And one of the main advocates of the Rossmoor Solar Initiative says several other Mutuals have shown varying degrees of initial interest in being part of an “overarching framework” for a program that would depend on economies of scale to achieve what proponents expect would be significant electric power cost savings.

The more Mutuals that sign on, he says, the better. As proposed, that plan would depend on a private equity firm for upfront funding and technical know-how.

“It would be a group of people joining to do something,” said Adrian Byram, chairman of Sustainable Rossmoor’s Residential Solar Committee, who made presentations about the Rossmoor Solar Initiative this week to the boards of First Mutual and Third Mutual.

More than 100 Rossmoor homeowners have installed their own rooftop solar systems in recent years, he said, but a plan that would cover hundreds, or even thousands, of homes would be far more cost-effective than each home installing its own equipment. The larger plan, he added, would also call for overhaul of aging power infrastructure where necessary.

The Rossmoor Solar Initiative is described as a collaborative effort by as many Mutuals as want to take part, as well as Sustainable Rossmoor, to build not only enough solar panels to generate enough power for participating Mutuals and their residences, but to later build a “microgrid” battery storage system that would protect against power outages (including PG&E’s planned Public Safety Power Shutoffs during fire season).

Proponents envision a plan in which power rates would be planned over the 25-year period, likely at significantly lower levels than what PG&E could offer.

The initiative itself can be found at www.RSI-now.org

On Friday, May 28, the First Mutual board will consider approving an “engagement letter” with Sausalito-based Table Rock Infrastructure Partners to begin the process of exploring whether a Mutual-wide solar system is practical and could bring electricity cost savings over PG&E power costs over at least the next 25 years. If that engagement letter is approved, a five-week study of the feasibility of this prospective partnership would follow.

At a special May 11 First Mutual board meeting. Byram described what would be a “public-private partnership” in which Table Rock (the “private” element) would provide upfront funding for a solar energy system, which at First Mutual would cover 1,878 residences. That funding, the draft initiative says, could be at least $18 million. The money would come from investors working through Table Rock.

The participating Rossmoor Mutuals would be the “public” element in the equation, and residents would repay Table Rock over time through buying power from the panels, batteries and other apparatus that a Table Rock company would own, Byram said.

When asked why Table Rock was tapped as the private partner, Byram said few companies do this kind of work setting up solar energy networks, and that other firms contacted did not respond to inquiries.

Table Rock has a “deep Rolodex” of people and firms that have provided both capital and know-how for such projects, Byram said. “They’ve worked with these people over the years; they know how to bring the whole thing together and make it successful.”

The feasibility study of the Rossmoor Solar Initiative, if and when it’s approved, would be done by San Rafael-based Sage Energy.

The proposed timeline is tight – for a reason. Residences with panels can sell excess power they produce to the PG&E power grid. Under existing state Public Utilities Commission rules, for each unit of power fed back into the grid, solar panel owners get credited for the same amount as they would pay PG&E for that power.

Those financial credits, or “tariffs,” however, are expected to shrink late this year, possibly November, under an anticipated “net energy metering 3.0” updated program. Earlier this year, Byram said installing systems this year will likely “grandfather” buyers into the higher tariff rate for at least several years.

Under the plan described at that May 11 meeting, if all steps proceed as called for in the Rossmoor Solar Initiative, the first phase (the panels, vehicle charging equipment and related infrastructure) would be finished by late 2022. The second phase, including the microgrid, would come later.

Arlyss Rothman, Third Mutual’s board president, said this week that her board is awaiting an informational packet from Table Rock, and a copy of the engagement letter, to review.

“We anticipate making a decision in the near future; however, we do not yet have a date set,” Rothman said in an email. “We may need to schedule a special meeting for further information.”

Mutual 50 has also established a committee to investigate a solar power plan.

In January, the GRF Board approved installing solar panels at the Event Center and at Gateway, which will power those facilities plus the Hillside complex. It is anticipated that the Event Center and Gateway project, together with the capacity provided by the large solar panel installation off Rockview Drive near the Mutual Operations and Maintenance Service Center, will meet 85% to 90% of all GRF power needs.

The Waterford (Mutual 58) built a series of solar collectors outside its main building, which started providing electricity to the building’s common areas in July 2018, said Rick Antunes, The Waterford’s director of operations. The power generated by the panels, he said, has been cheaper than had it been purchased from PG&E.

At the May 11 First Mutual meeting, there was plenty of resident interest in this plan – and plenty of questions. Among the issues brought up were the specifics in Table Rock’s role in the plan; whether large and small Mutuals would benefit equally; the possibility of Mutual residents receiving “dividends” if the financials work out particularly well; possible tax consequences of this plan; and the aggressive timeline for the plan.

Some of those questions cannot be answered until after a feasibility study is finished, said Paul Moderacki, chairman of First Mutual’s solar committee. But one thing is clear now, he said – “It’s important to bring the entire Rossmoor community into the project.”

Mark Fehrig, a resident of Second Mutual, was watching the May 11 meeting. He has offered to chair the newly forming solar power committee for that Mutual, and a discussion of these matters is on the agenda for Second Mutual’s Thursday, May 20 board meeting.

He said he remains neutral on the Rossmoor Solar Initiative for the moment – he wants more information, and to hear more opinions. But Fehrig, an electrical engineer, said he’s intrigued by the technology, and by how it could benefit Rossmoor residents.

“My mind is wide open,” said Fehrig, adding that the technological, financial and political aspects of such a comprehensive plan must be worked out.

“It’s not going to happen if all three legs aren’t real sturdy,” he said.

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