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Solar Microgrids moving forward for the Santa Barbara Unified School District

image credit: Solar parking canopies shading school buses at Analy High School, a Sage Energy site in the West Sonoma County Union High School District. Source: Sage Energy.
Craig Lewis's picture
Executive Director Clean Coalition

Craig Lewis is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Coalition. He has over 20 years of experience in the renewables, wireless, semiconductor, and banking industries. Previously VP of...

  • Member since 2018
  • 12 items added with 23,998 views
  • Jan 13, 2021

A groundbreaking RFP process and PPA contract ensure massive bill savings and unparalleled resilience value for free at a California school district.

2021 started on a high note for Solar Microgrids and the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD). On 12 January, the SBUSD Board voted unanimously on a contract with Engie Systems for Solar Microgrids at six school sites and standalone solar at another eight sites. Engie will build, own, and operate the systems under a 28-year power purchase agreement (PPA), and the District will reap massive benefits in guaranteed bill savings from the deployments, while enjoying an almost equivalent amount of free resilience value from the Solar Microgrids.


A perfect location for Solar Microgrids

The SBUSD is located in one of the most grid-vulnerable regions in California, the Goleta Load Pocket (GLP): a 70-mile stretch of Southern California coastline stretching from Point Conception to Lake Casitas, encompassing the cities of Goleta, Santa Barbara (including Montecito), and Carpinteria. The area gets most of its power from just one 
set of transmission lines routed through 40 miles of mountainous terrain that is highly prone to wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes.

Map of the Goleta Load Pocket showing half of the highly vulnerable 40-mile transmission path in purple.


This transmission-vulnerable, disaster-prone area provides the perfect opportunity for the Solar Microgrids, which will bring the region unparalleled economic, environmental, and resilience benefits. The SBUSD Solar Microgrids provide early building blocks for the broader Goleta Load Pocket Community Microgrid (GLPCM), which is staging to provide resilience to the entire region.


Getting the District on board

Schools are increasingly realizing they can save money with solar; now they are also becoming aware of the unparalleled resilience provided by renewables-driven microgrids. A report on solar in US schools released in September 2020 highlighted the bill savings, educational opportunities, and resilience benefits that many schools are enjoying from solar+storage and included a section featuring the SBUSD Solar Microgrids.

Schools are ideal sites for Solar Microgrids, because they are located throughout our communities, serve as community centers, and are often used as emergency shelters. With large parking lots, schools are also well situated to benefit from solar parking canopies and electric vehicle charging infrastructure (EVCI).

The SBUSD showed impressive leadership in being among the first to adopt Solar Microgrids throughout a school district. After connecting with the Clean Coalition, the SBUSD Board unanimously voted in December 2019 to engage the Clean Coalition and Sage Energy to move forward on the Solar Microgrids. Following extensive feasibility analyses at all SBUSD sites, the SBUDS agreed to move forward with recommendations for solar Solar Microgrids at six sites and solar alone at eight additional sites.

The six SBUSD Solar Microgrid sites are spread throughout the Goleta Load Pocket.


Quantifying resilience benefits

The next step was designing and executing a groundbreaking request for proposal (RFP) process and a PPA that reflect highly innovative specifications based on the Clean Coalition’s value-of-resilience (VOR) methodology, referred to as VOR123.

The VOR123 calculations added a compelling element to the feasibility analyses, showing the full economic benefits of implementing Solar Microgrids across the SBUSD. The results below indicate the massive level of guaranteed bill savings from the fourteen projects — and the almost equivalent value of resilience that the SBUSD will enjoy from the six Solar Microgrids. These impressive figures made it easy for the SBUSD to proceed with the projects.


Innovating the contract

Given the relative newness of Solar Microgrids, there were significant innovations required in the RFP design. Even bigger innovations were required in the PPA contracts, which needed to incorporate guaranteed bill savings from solar+storage and guaranteed resilience performance associated with the Solar Microgrids. These needed innovations led to complex contract negotiations, and in the end, resulted in standardized Performance Guarantees in terms of guaranteed bill savings and resilience performance. Similarly, all prospective PPA providers of Solar Microgrids must prepare to deliver VOR123 resilience and guaranteed bill savings.

The Clean Coalition was able to help structure and negotiate a successful contract process to reach agreement with Engie prior to finalizing the contracts that were approved at the SBUSD’s 12 January Board meeting. The good news is that the extensive work on the SBUSD contracts provides a blueprint for standardizing Solar Microgrid PPAs to ease the process for the multitude of school districts and other entities that will implement PPA-facilitated Solar Microgrids.


Giving the green light to proceed

With the SBUSD Board’s unanimous 12 January decision to move forward, the District is staged to begin enjoying bill savings and resilience benefits by the end of 2021. Construction would normally take place in the summer, when school is out of session, but given pandemic-related school shutdowns, construction might be able to start sooner.

The SBUSD Solar Microgrids are attracting significant attention and influencing many additional school districts to follow. Importantly, every school district, whether in California or beyond, should be able to enjoy the unparalleled economic, environmental, and resilience benefits of Solar Microgrids.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 13, 2021

Schools are ideal sites for Solar Microgrids, because they are located throughout our communities, serve as community centers, and are often used as emergency shelters. With large parking lots, schools are also well situated to benefit from solar parking canopies and electric vehicle charging infrastructure (EVCI).

These are great points-- schools aren't like other typical buildings, and they even have the size benefits that other community centers (libraries, churches) don't. Even better, they are public buildings so communities that want to be leaders in the energy transition can push their political leaders to lead the way and walk the walk!

Rosana Francescato's picture
Rosana Francescato on Jan 14, 2021

Yes, schools can really help their communities in this way, and the sites for the Solar Microgrids are spread throughout the area so no one will be too far from a potential sheltering spot where they may also be able to charge cell phones, etc. In addition, with the major bill savings the schools can put more money into education!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jan 15, 2021

Great projects  schools are a perfect place for solar pv instead of oil wells like they have in Hollywood California  .

   I didn't see where they invited solar homes in these areas to join the micro grid. It seems that by including the neighboring homes and business they could be even better.  In FACT with the electrification of school buses and V2G they can really get some great clean synergy. I hope that will be in project step 2 and 3. 

Rosana Francescato's picture
Rosana Francescato on Jan 15, 2021

YES! The Clean Coalition's vision for the area is a larger Community Microgrid that would include homes, businesses, municipal buildings, etc., and V2G should also be part of that. Current policies and regulations stand in the way of Community Microgrids, and we're working on overcoming these barriers, including in our regulatory filings at the CPUC: In staging Solar Microgrids, we work to ensure they will be ready to connect to future Community Microgrids when those are available. The technology is there, but the policies and market mechanisms lag.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 16, 2021

Very interesting niche - bigger than home rooftop solar, but smaller than conventional solar arrays.  This is clearly a trend to watch as solar hardware and storage become better and cheaper.

Rosana Francescato's picture
Rosana Francescato on Jan 18, 2021

Definitely! People tend to think of rooftop solar as home solar, but the commercial-scale market segment — the one that propelled Germany to being a global solar leader despite having way less sunshine than California — is woefully untapped in the US. As you can see from this article, parking lots offer a significant amount of solar siting potential, even in dense urban areas. We need to unleash this market segment to bring our communities the full economic, environmental, and resilience benefits of locally generated clean energy. See more here:

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