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Shedding more light on Mt. Diablo district solar plans

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, September 27th, 2010 at 7:24 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

By Theresa Harrington

In an effort to get more information regarding the Mt. Diablo school district’s solar plans, I spoke to a SolarCity representative and the district’s solar consultant today. Representatives from the other three firms vying for the contract declined to comment.

I also e-mailed some questions to Superintendent Steven Lawrence and Trustee Gary Eberhart, at their request. Trustees Paul Strange, Dick Allen, Linda Mayo and Sherry Whitmarsh did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Erik Fogelberg, SolarCity’s diredtor of commercial sales, said his company submitted a revised proposal after the Sept. 16 board study session. But Russell Driver, the district’s solar consultant, said the additional information was not solicited and was not used by the committee when it developed its recommendations.

Although Driver said last month that the proposals were difficult to compare because the information submitted varied so widely, he told me today the committee reached a consensus and is confident in its selection. It will not reveal its recommendation until the meeting tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., however.

“In my mind, we’re trying to measure the proposals against each other to see which has the best value to the district,” Driver said.

He stressed that the district hasn’t yet begun negotiations and does not know what the final price will be.

“This isn’t a full blown project or project analysis,” he said, “this is a comparison of proposals.”

The district will present a PowerPoint presentation outlining the reasons for the committee’s recommendation, he said.

“I think it’s a pretty thorough evaluation,” he said. “There is ample justification in my mind for the selection that we’re recommending.”

At the study session, board President Paul Strange said he was very interested in looking at which company could save the district the most money over 25 years. But Fogelberg said the cost of construction is also an important factor to taxpayers, since they’ll be footing the bill.

“I think it’s very difficult for the district to do a true ‘apples to apples’ comparison, Fogelberg said. “We want to save the school district money, but we want to use less of the bond, if possible. I think they really do need to look at the cost per watt, the cost to install and the savings. From my perspective being a parent in a public school district, I would want them to take the cost of that bond into account.”

Here are the responses I received from Eberhart and Lawrence regarding the solar contract:

Q. What are the most important evaluative criteria to you?
[(1)Price (capital cost, cost per unit production,operation and maintenance costs and performance guarantee); 2)Experience (including K-12 experience); 3)Proven Performance; 4) Organizational Qualifications; 5)Technology; 6) Use of local labor; and 7) Overall quality of the RFP (including interview)].

Eberhart: Obviously price is of huge importance, but there are many other factors. We need a strong company that can provide assurances that they have the experience and technical ability to execute the project correctly, with care for our students and staff, and complete the system on time. We need to make sure that we receive a guaranty as to life expectancy of the system as well as performance of the system. We need a company that has a proven track record and hopefully a company that utilizes local tradespeople to accomplish the work. These are a number of the most important points of evaluation.

Lawrence: Price is a very important consideration; however, experience and proven performance our almost as important. Do you remember the Yugo? It was an extremely inexpensive car, but neither the car nor company manufacturing it had a track record. We want to ensure, as much as possible, that the product we install today is still producing at a high rate of reliability 25 to 30 years from now. We also want to work with a company that has a strong record of meeting timelines and putting solar shade structures in place while school is in session.

Q. Do you think the board will be able to finalize the contract Oct. 12?

Eberhart: The October 12 date is not the most important factor. Obviously we would like to finalize a contract as soon as possible. We have assembled an excellent team to accomplish the task of negotiating a contract, but the most important thing will be to get it done correctly. We will have a contract in place in plenty of time to get the system under construction in a timely manner.

Lawrence: We have an experienced team supporting the district and it is our goal to meet this date. However, what is most important is that we have a strong contract that protects the district during construction and through the performance guarantee period of 20 years.

Q: When does the district need to finalize the contract to retain the CSI credits?

Eberhart: Fortunately the CSI process allows for extensions if the project is not 100% complete. It is our goal to have all facets on the project completed prior to the end of the 2011-2012 school year, but that is not absolutely necessary.

Lawerence: We can receive several CSI tax credit extensions that provide us over two years to complete the projects. The date that was stated in the RFP was April 2012 which is well within the CSI time framework.

Q. What is the main reason the district is pursuing this solar project at this time?

Eberhart: I don’t know if there is a single main reason, but rather a combined benefit to the students and community that dictates that the District should move forward. In part the the reasons that make up the combined benefit are: tens of millions of dollars that can directly improve student programs, the huge environmental benefit to the community that we all live in, the educational advantage that will be provided to our students in terms of experiential learning opportunities that will exist with solar systems installed at each school site, and the upgrade of our electrical systems that will occur when energy is produced at the location it is used.

Lawrence: Several reasons:
1. We want to model good environmental stewardship
2. We want to provide 21st century learning opportunities for our students
3. We want to create long-term savings to the general fund that allows us to move funds currently used for operational costs (PG&E electrical costs) to focus on funding educational programs.”

Here’s a rundown of the responses to the district’s RFP:

Roebbelen
Team: Emard Electric
Proposed system: 12.8 MW
Construction cost: $56.4 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $121.4 million
Number of solar panels: 55,576
Experience: ?
Local office: El Dorado Hills

SolarCity
Team: Helix Electric, 450 Architects
Proposed system: 11.2 MW
Construction cost: $52.2 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $118.7 million
Number of solar panels: 47,694
Experience: Installed 17MW solar
Local office: Berkeley

SunPower
Team: Taber Construction, Del Monte Electric
Proposed system: 11.2 MW
Construction cost: $60.1 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $124.3 million
Number of solar panels: 35,166 (high efficiency)
Experience: 450 MW (20 MW schools)
Local office: Richmond

Vanir-Parsons
Team: Solar Power Inc., Rosendin Electric
Proposed system: 12.6 MW
Construction cost: $63.3 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $125.4 million
Number of solar panels: ?
Experience: ?
Local office: Sacramento

Question marks indicate clear information was not presented.

What are the most important evaluative criteria to you?

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