Santa Barbara’s public school system is finalizing a solar
microgrid project that could set a model for investment in clean
Purveyers of carbon-free backup power have struggled for years
to convince customers to pay for resilience. But a novel design
will save the Santa Barbara Unified School District considerable
amounts of money while�creating resilience for critical
infrastructure in the face of Californiaâ€™s many and varied
calamities. All of this requires no upfront purchase by the
schools, and shields them from financial risk if the system does
“We can bring solar-driven resilience to critical community
facilities, and frankly to any facilities,” said distributed energy
advocate Craig Lewis, executive director of the Clean Coalition,
which helped design the project. “We can do that while providing
bill savings to the sites if the projects are large enough.”
The project is especially relevant for California, which enacted
supportive policies for solar and battery storage, and where
earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides regularly threaten the normal
functioning of the electricity system. But the architects of the
deal believe the concept could easily translate to other states
with pronounced resiliency needs.
How does it work?
Santa Barbara may be known for righteous shore breaks and fresh,
creamy sea urchin, but the coastal city has had its brushes with
The Thomas Fire burned for weeks in the mountains above town in
December 2017 and into 2018, followed by heavy rains that triggered
a deadly debris flow. The schools served as safe havens during that
time, because their power supply happened to remain intact. â€œIt
clicked,â€ said SBUSD Board President Laura Capps: for the schools
to reliably play that role, their electricity access couldnâ€™t be
left up to the elements.
The Santa Barbara Unified School District held a request for
proposals earlier this year to build a series of solar
installations and solar-battery microgrids. The installations would
allow key facilities to continue operating through an outage, so
that schools can keep feeding the students who depend on breakfast
and lunch, and maintain communications.
Global energy giant Engie won the contract through its public
sector energy solutions division. Engie has been building public
sector microgrids for years, and counts 57.9 megawatt-hours of
customer-sited battery storage installed around the country. Engie
is finalizing its designs for final approval by the SBUSD Board
later this year.
Engie plans to install solar at 14 locations; it will also
install battery-power microgrids at three high schools, one junior
high school, and the district office and facilities maintenance
warehouse. During normal times, the solar should cover the
schoolsâ€™ energy needs. The batteries will cycle to avoid
time-based rates and demand charges. Those savings make the project
attractive for a school district.
Solar will generate power across the school district’s
portfolio, while the larger facilities will serve as resilient
microgrids. (Graphic courtesy of Engie)
“There’s more money for the classroom, the more money we save
outside the classroom,” Capps explained.
If power goes out, the batteries guarantee operations
indefinitely for a specific set of critical operations; if extra
energy is available, they will keep other parts of the buildings
â€œEverything is sized for the worst solar day,â€ Lewis said.
â€œEven on that day, thereâ€™s going to be enough solar and storage
to provide the resilience requirement.â€
The school district will pay Engie via a power purchase
agreement for 28 years â€” the long-term certainty helps bring down
the cost. Engie will install and own the equipment, while
guaranteeing performance from the solar generators and bill savings
from the batteries.
Why itâ€™s revolutionary
The RFP process, designed and run by Clean Coalition and clean
energy engineering firm Sage Consulting, developed a sophisticated
for valuing resilience. It breaks down all the various school
building loads into a clear hierarchy, and determines which loads
need full-time support, which ones should be backed up most of the
time, and which ones are nice to have if there’s energy to
But perhaps the most striking aspect of the deal is that it
pencils even without factoring that in, simply on the basis of cash
saved from utility bills.
â€œOver the lifetime of the project, the school district will
definitely be saving money compared to a business-as-usual, stick
with the utility approach,â€ said Dana Coe, who helped craft the
design as senior project manager at Sage.
That statement requires a little parsing. Coe said â€œover the
lifetime of the projectâ€ because the school district opted for a
flat rate PPA. The result is the first few years will see a modest
increase in energy price compared to today, but the schools will be
insulated from utility rate hikes in the future. Even conservative
estimates show it will save money as the years go on.
Had the school opted for just solar, it could have saved
additional money, but this setup lacks a defense against outages.
The microgrid additions add cost to the project, but the savings
more than pay for the backup functionality.
â€œTheyâ€™re getting a luxury vehicle for an economy vehicle
price,â€ Coe said.
That’s a marked break from the past, when the “luxury vehicle”
of clean backup power only came at luxury prices.
But does it scale?
Californiaâ€™s high utility rates, time-based rate structure for
solar customers and local incentives make it an attractive state to
try something like this. But similar conditions exist
â€œIt can certainly expand beyond the bordersâ€ of California,
said Russell Schmit, Sageâ€™s chief operating officer. He said it
could work in Hawaii and parts of the Northeast that value
resilience, like Long Island or coastal Maine.
Courtney Jenkins, vice president of Engie’s regulatory,
organizations and mobility business, agreed that similar projects
could fit well in Hawaii and the East Coast.
“Theyâ€™re building this national model for how we look at
microgrids as a form of proactive resilience,” she said of the
Santa Barbara schools. “I anticipate weâ€™ll see more in this
Jenkins noted, though, that long-term partnerships like this
28-year PPA work better for government and non-profit customers.
Commercial customers are typically not interested in locking down
such a lengthy commitment.
Another crucial ingredient is a customer that is willing to look
beyond the easy savings from standalone solar.
“Anyone can throw together a savings analysis for a solar system
these days,” said Engie project manager Sophie Fallon. Justifying
the additional expense of the microgrid can be challenging, and
parsing critical and non-critical loads is complicated. But doing
so opens up values a customer can’t get from solar on its own.
Scale matters, too: In Santa Barbara, 14 buildings will produce
solar generation, thereby increasing savings for the portfolio. It
did not, however, make sense to put batteries on all of them at
today’s prices. Thatâ€™s just a snapshot of the market: if battery
costs drop, or new market mechanisms compensate distributed energy
for its services to the grid, the addressable market will expand,
Clean Coalition’s Lewis noted.
Clean Coalition is looking to export this model to the
surrounding region, known in grid planning terms as the Goleta Load
Pocket. The steep Santa Ynez mountains isolate the coastal plain
from the rest of the grid; ensuring reliability from the outside,
in the face of earthquakes or wildfires, requires expensive
infrastructure investments. But Clean Coalition has calculated that
building 200 megawatts of solar capacity and 400 megawatt-hours of
storage in the area would
allow it to keep functioning even if a disaster cuts off the
If the school district’s approach catches on, it could inspire
copycats in the neighborhood, as well as across the continent.
Source: FS – GreenTech Media
Santa Barbara Schools Get Solar-Battery Backup and Save
Money At the Same Time