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New game plan for solar advocates

Mutuals pull back from public-private partnership idea

By Sam Richards

Staff writer

(Thursday, Sept. 30, 10:40 a.m.): After concluding that an ambitious plan for entire Mutuals to create solar power networks isn’t practical at this point, solar advocates in Rossmoor are now turning to how one Mutual approached this issue five years ago – getting small groups of homeowners together to build collective solar installations.

Lining up financing for and installation of Mutual-wide solar installations can’t happen in time to lock in existing rates for selling power to PG&E before they’re expected to drop, said Adrian Byram, of Sustainable Rossmoor’s residential solar committee.

That, he said, is a contributing factor in some Mutuals deciding to not go with a plan to bring in Sausalito-based Table Rock Infrastructure Partners as the “private” piece of a proposed public-private partnership to fund and install. Such a partnership of private investors and a large group of homeowners could have been one of the first such partnerships in the country, if not the first.

Byram said the ambitious original RSI plan is still worthy of consideration but that time is running out to get solar systems built in time to lock in the higher power sell-back rates.

“You might be able to make it work, but it might take time, and we don’t have a lot of time,” Byram said last week. “It was clear that there wasn’t going to be enough time.”

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. However, those financial credits, or “tariffs,” are expected to shrink late this year or early in 2022 under an anticipated “net energy metering 3.0” updated program.

Earlier this year, Byram said that installing systems this year would likely “grandfather” buyers into the higher tariff rate for at least several years. He and others said that tariff rate difference would likely be a major consideration for some homeowners considering going solar.

David Vereeke, chairman of Mutual 48’s solar committee, said the current PG&E buyback rates allow panel system owners to recoup their investment in seven or eight years. No one knows what the new “net energy metering 3.0” rates would be, but Vereeke and others anticipate those rates will drop considerably. Locking in the current rates, Vereeke said, “is a big deal” for solar owners.

Thirty-five of Mutual 48’s 62 manors are powered by shared solar panels, Vereeke said, which are owned (and financed) by the residents themselves, and not by outside investors.

“It’s working well, and we’ve mostly been getting the expected results,” Vereeke said. Modified CC&Rs give the Mutual the right to install panels on any roof within the Mutual; not all rooftop locations are conducive to efficient panel operation.

Some Mutuals have already decided the public-private partnership route isn’t for them, be it due to the time constraints or for other reasons. At its regular meeting Sept. 13, the Third Mutual Board of Directors’ solar committee said the RSI concept of a Mutual-wide solar power project is not practical in the near term, at least. Ron Snyder, a member of that committee, said Third Mutual is pivoting to instead look at doing something similar to the plan adopted by Mutual 48 in 2016.

In early June, Third Mutual had authorized a feasibility study by Sage Energy Consulting of San Rafael of the RSI proposal. Sage was cited in the original RSI proposal.

“The study came back and said the original (RSI) concept is not as desirable as we thought, so we’ve pivoted to instead help homeowners get together and do a group purchase,” Snyder said.

On Sept. 14, Second Mutual approved its own study of what sort of solar power installation could make sense, by a different firm (Johnson Controls) than Sage. Eric Cox, chairman of Second Mutual’s solar committee, said representatives of that company visited Rossmoor earlier this month. As of press time, Cox said, Johnson Controls’ report had not yet been given to the Mutual.

The Rossmoor Solar Initiative (viewable at www.RSI-now.org) had earlier this year been touted as a plan for as many Mutuals as wanted to take part to build not only enough solar panels to generate electricity for those Mutuals’ residences, but to later build a “microgrid” and a battery storage system that would protect against power outages (including PG& E’s planned Public Safety Power Shutoffs during fire season).

Its proponents envisioned 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 solar initiative, as originally drawn up, describes a “public-private partnership” of Rossmoor Mutuals and Table Rock; the Sausalito firm would have provided upfront funding to build the solar system’s physical infrastructure. Sage would do the studies of whether RSI’s proposed solar power system would make economic and operational sense for each Mutual.

On Aug. 26, the GRF Board of Directors heard a report from Bill Golove, a clean-energy consultant who studied and evaluated the original RSI proposal to help the Mutual Operations Department (MOD) identify the benefits and risks of the RSI plan. Golove criticized the RSI proposal as “unclear” and “far too open-ended to be properly evaluated,” and said the proposal “tends to materially overstate the possible.” He also told the GRF Board he didn’t believe RSI’s approach is suitable for Rossmoor’s circumstances.

Snyder said his Third Mutual committee has seen Golove’s presentation. But he referred to the Sage feasibility study as more of a turning point for his Mutual.

Byram said the RSI proposal will be updated and modified to reflect Sustainable Rossmoor’s shift to the “Mutual 48 model.” He also said the RSI proposal may evolve as time goes on, and as conditions and needs evolve.

The discussion about how Rossmoor residents can be part of a multi-owner solar installation will continue at the first Rossmoor Town Square community-wide gathering, planned for Friday, Oct. 1, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Peacock Plaza. That discussion, sponsored by the Nature Walkers Club and Sustainable Rossmoor, will focus in part on the Mutual 48 model for securing multi-owner solar power systems.

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