With the nation’s economy spiraling downward and the unemployment rate inflating, the federal government was spurred into action in 2009 to create legislation and programs aimed at pumping money back into communities across the country.
From these programs, the Housing Authority of Santa Barbara saw a perfect alignment of subsidies — cash available for the taking — that could be ambitiously spent on a sea of photovoltaic cells decked on rooftops of low-income housing in Lompoc and other cities across the Central Coast.
The solar panels glistening from the roofs of homes around the 300 block of West College Avenue represent $2.3 million of an $11.5 million investment made by the Housing Authority, according to Bob Havlicek, director of finance and operations.
It’s the largest investment project ever made by the authority, Havlicek said. He said solar panels were placed on 21 Housing Authority properties in Lompoc, Goleta, Santa Maria, Guadalupe, and other cities. The solar cells in Lompoc were installed in September 2011. They are atop the roofs of 56 structures that include 223 units.
Later this year, the tenants will begin receiving a reduced utility rate that could fall between 33 to 50 percent, Havlicek said.
The electricity from the solar panels doesn’t go directly into the homes. It is sent into the city’s electrical grid system; the city will then provide a rebate check to the Housing Authority, which distributes the money to tenants. The annual estimated production would be 550,000 kilowatts, enough to provide power for the 650 people that live on the complex, Havlicek said.
The project isn’t an endorsement for the cost-effectiveness of solar panels, Havlicek said, or a trend for future low-income housing properties. The monumental undertaking exists only because of the perfect alignment of subsidies from various agencies as a result of the Great Recession and California legislation that encourages renewable energy.
“I think the key takeaway is these rebates were available and we elected to take advantage of them,” Havlicek said.
The Housing Authority is fronting the cost of installation, but it will recoup the money from the federal government, including the Treasury Department, and city.
A tremendous amount of work, and will, was needed to take on the project, but even more importantly, the solar cells wouldn’t be there without the funds, which came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and city subsidies.
The state requires utility companies and city governments to have a certain amount of power produced by a renewable power source, Havlicek said. “The city should take great pride in these six developments go a long way to meet the goals.”
The Treasury Department also made solar subsidies available. There was a catch: The solar cells would have to be part of its own for-profit group.
So one was created by the Housing Authority. The solar panels are managed by a separate legal entity known as Surf Solar Enterprise Inc., part of a non-profit called Surf Solar Inc., an affiliate solely created so the Housing Authority could retrieve the funds, Havlicek said.
A landslide of paperwork later, the solar cells are now operating in Lompoc, the first of the 21 properties with a working system.
However, there won’t be any other ambitious undertakings like this from the Housing Authority anytime soon. ARRA and the treasury subsidy are no longer available.
Combined, those two sources of funds provided almost $1.9 million in subsidies, out of a total cost of $2.3 million to install the panels in Lompoc.
Havlicek said that there is a long-term benefit to solar: the Housing Authority will spend less money on cost and that will save the government money. Havlicek anticipated the cost of the solar cells will be recouped sometime in the next 30 to 40 years.
The panels are also an enduring legacy from the Great Recession that will be present in the general community for many more years to come.
The city was happy to provide the funding for incentives for commercial and private homeowners, said Mary Kammer, Lompoc utility conversation coordinator, said.
In 2011 there were 10 solar systems installed. She said the city has $1.74 million in solar rebates available to customers through 2017— the city has allocated $760,000.
Within the city limits, she said there are 38 families, two businesses, and three city-owned properties have solar systems.
Then there are the six housing authority properties.
“You’re spending a lot of money so you need to investigate the contractor and understand what you are doing,” Kammer said. “It takes a lot of energy to do that.”
Anybody interested in learning more about solar rebates can call Kammer at 875-8298.