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Solar Santa Barbara

I went to UC Santa Barbara to shed a little light on solar power's promise and came away enlightened by what's happening on campus and in the labs of scientists trained by the university. Within a year or two, a half-dozen solar arrays will generate roughly half of UCSB's minimum electric demand, reducing the campus's carbon footprint by about 6 percent. Estimated cost savings will be about $270,000 in the first year, equal to a 5-6 percent reduction in UCSB's electric bill paid to Southern California Edison.  Over the solar arrays' first 20 years of operation, savings are expected to amount to about $14 million, based on the assumption that electric rates will rise an average of 3 percent per year. Jordan Sager, UCSB's LEED Program Manager, is particularly excited about this new development.

As with many universities and non-profits, UCSB will not own these solar installations, but has arranged to have a for-profit company, Silicon Valley-based SunPower, build the systems, retain ownership, and sell the solar power to the university via what's known as a third-party power purchase agreement, or PPA. This arrangement allows SunPower to tap the federal government's 30-percent investment tax credit, recently extended by Congress via eleventh-hour budget negotiations at the end of 2015. (Non-profits, exempt from taxation, can't benefit directly from this important renewable energy incentive.)

Not all solar arrays on the UCSB campus are third party-owned, however.  Andrew Riley, UCSB's Sustainability Coordinator for Student Affairs, took me to the top level of Campus Parking Structure 22, now equipped with a 500-kilowatt solar canopy financed through a fund that speaks extremely well of UCSB students.  Through a campus-wide signature campaign several years ago, UCSB students won approval for a Renewable Energy Initiative that now requires each and every UCSB student to pay $6 per quarter into a fund that has already financed two large solar installations, including Campus Parking Structure 22.  What a great example of students showing civic leadership in promoting community sustainability!

Looking a bit farther into the future, I met with Dr. Corey Hoven, a UCSB graduate with a PhD in materials science who is working with UCSB colleagues and others at Next Energy Technologies to develop a transparent photovoltaic window application.  This new technology could revolutionize building energy performance - especially in larger commercial and public buildings - by allowing glazed surfaces to double as electric power generators.  The printed PV application used by Hoven's group, though about half as efficient as crystalline silicon-based photovoltaics, could substantially bring down production costs while allowing 30-50% of visible light to penetrate glazed surfaces.

With these and other measures, UCSB is implementing the tried-and-true in photovoltaics while opening new frontiers in solar development. Both reflect well on a university that is committed to taking genuine steps toward climate stabilization.