Q&A with Dennis Elliot, Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability at Cal Poly

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is a nationally-ranked university known for their philosophy of Learn by Doing. The university is committed to leadership in sustainability in both academics and operations. In April 2017 Cal Poly and REC Solar announced that we are working together to bring a 4.5 megawatt (AC) solar farm to the campus. The 18.5-acre solar farm is slated for completion in winter of 2017. It will include more than 16,000 individual solar panels and will generate over 11 million kWh per year — about 25 percent of Cal Poly’s total needs.

Dennis Elliot Cal Poly client spotlight
Dennis Elliot, Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability at Cal Poly

In addition to being headquartered in San Luis Obispo, REC Solar was founded by two Cal Poly grads and currently has many alumni on staff, making this a particularly exciting project for our team.

The leader of the initiative at Cal Poly is Dennis Elliot, Director of Energy, Utilities and Sustainability. We recently interviewed him about the solar farm and other initiatives he is overseeing.

Can you tell us more about what your team oversees at the university?

With three full time staff and five part time student interns, the Energy, Utilities and Sustainability team is responsible for the university’s $10M utility budget and Climate Action Plan, energy and water conservation programs, recycling initiatives, educational outreach, and support of student clubs and curriculum development related to sustainability and climate change.

What went into your planning process when you first started evaluating the solar farm idea?

Very early on, we became aware of the opportunities presented by the RES-BCT program, which is allowing us to develop a much larger solar system than would have been possible behind Cal Poly’s main meter. We spent a great deal of time on site selection and structuring a comprehensive Request for Proposal to ensure a successful project and fair playing field for bidders. We wanted this project to result in a long-term collaborative relationship with the provider to develop academic applications of the solar farm in support of the university’s educational mission and student success.

What advice do you have for other universities that are evaluating and prioritizing renewable energy investments?

Consider the various finance models available from solar providers today – they provide a lot of options to fit your business needs. If you have enough open space, seriously consider pursuing the largest ground mounted array that you have space for to achieve the greatest return on investment. We found the RES-BCT program was a good fit for this project, and specified single axis tracking technology to maximize output from a constrained site, as well as mitigating the risk associated with expected changes in time of use periods and rates in the future.

What excites you most about the solar farm project?

Of course I am excited about how much this project is going to save Cal Poly over its 20 year life, and the huge step we are taking toward our goal of climate neutrality. I am most excited about the academic applications of both the solar farm and an associated hands-on solar engineering lab facility that will be designed and constructed near one of the engineering buildings. The work we do to reduce the university’s footprint is meaningful and important, but using these projects to educate future leaders, decision makers, and technology innovators to confront the challenges of climate change is the real reason we are all here.

How will students and faculty be involved?

We are excited that REC Solar will be hiring some Cal Poly students to help in the design and construction of the solar farm itself. In addition, students and faculty in the Electrical Engineering Department are already envisioning future curriculum and lab experiments to utilize the hands-on solar engineering laboratory to be built in the campus core as part of our world class EE Power Program. We look forward to collaborating with REC Solar for years to come on other curricular and applied research opportunities to use these infrastructure systems as teaching tools.

To learn more about the Cal Poly sustainability efforts, visit https://afd.calpoly.edu/sustainability/.

Q&A with Jana Ganion, Sustainability Director at Blue Lake Rancheria

At REC Solar, we are often fortunate to work with incredibly passionate organizations driven to make an impact in the world. Jana Ganion and Blue Lake Rancheria are a perfect example. REC Solar had the pleasure of building a 500kw solar array as part of a microgrid solution. This solar system, which includes energy storage, is helping power government offices, economic enterprises, and critical Red Cross safety shelter-in-place facilities across 100 acres.

blue lake rancheria client spotlight
Jana Ganion, Sustainability Director at Blue Lake Rancheria
Named a “Climate Action Champion” by the Obama Administration, REC Solar is pleased to help Blue Lake Rancheria achieve their sustainability goals to reduce their energy consumption 40% by 2018.

Tell us a little about Blue Lake Rancheria and what prompted you to consider solar for your tribal community?

The Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) is a federally recognized Native American tribal government and community located in Humboldt County, California. BLR lands consist of about 100 acres spanning the Mad River, in a rural region between the Northern California coastal mountains and the Pacific Ocean. BLR has an aggressive energy development strategy to fulfill several goals: create economic opportunity and clean energy jobs; reduce and levelize costs of energy; reduce and eliminate carbon emissions; support and improve the distribution grid; and provide emergency power. BLR has undertaken several major energy development projects, and has been extraordinarily successful at reaching its resilience goals. As a result, BLR has earned nationwide recognition including 2015-16 White House “Climate Action Champion,” and appointment to the U.S. Dept. of Energy Indian Country Energy and Infrastructure Working Group.

Who or what acted as the primary driver(s) for having Blue Lake Rancheria go solar now?

Going solar fulfills many of our goals mentioned earlier, including providing jobs, reducing our carbon footprint and increasing energy security. At the same time, the cost of installing solar has never been more affordable. The Tribe has looked at numerous distributed-generation energy types, and solar was by far the most cost-effective for us. Ultimately though, solar is clean energy. There are no CO2 or particulate matter or other emissions, which is crucial to public health. And as an industry, the climate benefits of solar have already exceeded the carbon footprint of manufacturing all the components – in other words with carbon lifecycle accounting, from here forward, every solar panel manufactured really does reduce the amount of CO2 and other causes of climate change.

What was important to you in a solar provider and why did you decide to work with REC Solar?

As a tribal government with many overlapping energy needs, the Blue Lake Rancheria required a robust system – one that would be able to function within a community scale microgrid for years to come. In addition to the Tribe’s needs, there are also many stakeholder eyes on this project, on local, state, national, and international levels, including the California Energy Commission as the primary funding agency. We needed the workmanship to be showcase-worthy. REC Solar committed to working with us on complex integration of the solar power within our microgrid, to function with battery storage and other components. And, they designed and implemented the system to be resilient, with multiple inverters, bolstered for a high-hazard earthquake area, and where possible designed to keep operations and maintenance (O&M) costs low. Further, they were competitive in terms of pricing, and were clearly committed partners in working with a tribal government.

Do you see solar as a trend that other tribal nations could leverage?

Tribal nations have and will continue to leverage solar as a part of their energy portfolios. Solar has co-benefits of being very robust over many decades, with low O&M costs, and a high degree of reliability. Many tribes have incredible, global-leading solar resources on their lands, which create favorable development conditions. And solar arrays are a relatively simple way to create electricity for vast areas of Indian Country that are still not connected to a utility grid. The cost of pairing battery storage with solar is plummeting, helping us control the use of solar power and meet some of our specific system requirements. Further, many tribal governments are organizing workforce development and economic enterprise around solar deployment – using solar installations to train tribal members to become installers, engineers, construction technicians, and other related positions. In addition to creating direct clean energy jobs, many tribes have developed utilities and solar enterprises to create exponential economic benefit from their solar strategies. For all these reasons, solar is continuing to trend upward as the most intelligent form of energy.

What are the potential benefits of having solar as part of your energy plan?

We have already seen a wide variety of benefits from focusing on solar as a keystone of our strategic energy plan. On the residential level, we have outfitted a number of homes on the Rancheria with individual arrays. On the community scale, our 500kW solar array is a pillar of our community scale microgrid, and has helped us be on track to save over $200,000 in energy costs annually. We have created clean energy jobs as a result of our use of solar in our energy strategy, and the ultimate benefit is that we will be able to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions significantly for decades to come. New clean energy jobs + emergency power + lower energy costs + climate action = smart.

To learn more about the Blue Lake Rancheria, visit http://www.bluelakerancheria-nsn.gov

Q&A with Clean Energy Collective, a Community Solar Leader

Clean Energy Co. (CEC) builds, operates and maintains community-shared clean energy facilities. CEC is pioneering the model of delivering clean power-generation through medium-scale facilities that collectively serve participating utility customers. Their proprietary software automatically calculates monthly credits for members and integrates with the utilities’ existing billing system.

Tim Braun, Director of Public Affairs at Clean Energy Co.
Tim Braun, Director of Public Affairs at Clean Energy Co.

REC Solar has partnered with CEC to build a portfolio of projects in Massachusetts and Colorado. We invited CEC’s Director of Public Affairs, Tim Braun, to give us an update on the company and trends to pay attention to in community solar in 2017.

We are finishing up working together on several projects in Massachusetts. Can you tell us what the outlook looks like this year regarding community solar? Does the focus continue to be on core states like MA and CO or are other markets becoming more viable?

Despite being a relatively new solution for distributed energy generation, community solar is growing at an impressive pace. In 2016 we saw cumulative operating capacity cross the 200 MW mark, and we expect it to exceed 400 MW this year.

Certainly, a good portion of this growth in the near term will come from core markets that have community solar-enabling policy, including Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New York, and from states that recently enacted community solar legislation and are coming online this year, like Maryland. The legislative and regulatory framework in these states allow companies to deploy projects, or in Clean Energy Collective’s case a large portfolio of projects, with clearly defined guidelines and predictable economics. A significant amount of capacity that was previously stalled while program and interconnection issues were being resolved is moving into development.

However, legislation is not a requirement for community solar’s progress, as we’re seeing strong growth in other markets as well. Increasingly, this growth is from utility-sponsored initiatives, which allow investor-owned, municipal, and cooperative utilities to cost-effectively serve customers’ demand for renewable options while keeping a grid-tied relationship with them. In fact, more than 150 utilities across the U.S. now have a voluntary community solar program in place or in development.

Are there specific trends you are seeing across states in policies that are helping to drive or stifle the growth of community solar?

As several new states are either finalizing legislation to introduce community solar programs or are initiating the process, legislators and policy makers in these states have looked to existing programs to determine best practices in successful community solar program design. The first is program complexity. Some early shared-solar programs had good intentions but included overly complicated rules and burdensome requirements, which hindered developer and consumer participation. The inclination now is to seek simplicity and clarity in structure and process.

Program size and project size are considerations getting more weight in policy design. States are recognizing that establishing larger community solar programs, versus testing the waters with smaller pilot programs, broadens participation and contributes to longer-term success. Allowing larger project sizes lowers development costs, which improves the value proposition and supports more participation by low and moderate income households.

Some of the larger community solar markets, like Minnesota and Massachusetts, experienced long delays in project development as projects stalled in the interconnection application process. As a result, these states and others have worked to establish clear interconnection procedures, timelines, and costs, and are addressing queue management and cost sharing (for projects on the same substations).

CEC is clearly a leader in bringing together community officials, consumers, financing partners and other entities necessary to make a project happen. Are you able to do this just because of your experience developing successful projects, or are there other tips you have for project developers?

The short answer is yes, launching and leading this market has provided CEC with an unmatched level of experience with all of the phases required to deploy a successful community solar project, including project development, utility integration, customer acquisition and retention, and program management. CEC has built an exceptionally talented staff of specialists in each of these areas, and work with established partners, like REC Solar, where needed.

But it is also because CEC participates in all of these phases as a pure-play, full-service community solar developer that we are successful. That is, we approach every project with a holistic perspective, knowing the company and facility will be part of the community for the long term, versus addressing only one aspect of it and moving on. In doing so, it’s imperative that we work closely with local partners, community leaders, and other stakeholders to make sure the projects we develop and the way we conduct ourselves are harmonious.

What are some of the things you are looking for in a market and project site?

Every market has unique characteristics, both positive and negative. In unregulated markets, we first look to establish strong utility relationships, helping them understand the opportunity and define their goals and objectives for a community solar program. In regulated markets, we gauge the ability to develop a comprehensive portfolio of projects that can provide broad, inclusive access to affordable solar.

When siting projects, location is important because it affects project economics, via direct development costs and potentially through the credit valuation (as locational value adjustments are being considered in some states). In general, though, an optimal site for installing several hundred to several thousand solar PV panels is a large, flat area of otherwise unproductive land with good solar exposure that is adjacent or close to utility distribution equipment. It can be public or private land, with brownfields usually a high priority. As community solar emerges in densely populated markets like New York, we are also working with owners and managers of buildings with open, flat rooftops that can host a shared system.

Is there anything else you want to highlight about CEC?

I’ve been involved with community solar since CEC cut the ribbon on the nation’s first community-owned solar project in 2010, and have witnessed its evolution into a widely-embraced solution that works for consumers, utilities, and developers. During this time, CEC has worked very hard behind the scenes on policy and regulatory initiatives, program and product design, utility relations, and consumer advocacy to help the industry grow and mature. It’s exciting to be part of a team leading an emerging industry, especially one that is effecting such dramatic change in our relationship with energy.


To learn more about CEC, visit cleanenergycollective.com

Client Spotlight: Q&A with Nicole Flewell, Director of Sustainability at Taylor Farms

Taylor Farms is North America’s favorite maker of salads and healthy fresh foods. The company focuses on innovation by consistently developing new products and improving production methods. Taylor Farms is family owned and based in Salinas, California with twelve operating companies and distribution facilities throughout North America.

 

Nicole Flewell, Director of Sustainability at Taylor Farms
Nicole Flewell, Director of Sustainability at Taylor Farms

REC Solar recently completed a solar installation at the Taylor Farms facility in Dallas, Texas, which is one of several solar projects for Taylor Farms. Beyond solar, the company has many renewable energy programs in place. We asked Nicole Flewell, Director of Sustainability at Taylor Farms, to talk more about these initiatives.

Congratulations on your latest facility opening in Dallas and the completion of the solar project there. Can you tell us more about what prompted Taylor Farms to make such a big push to prioritize sustainability initiatives?

Thank you! It’s a very exciting time for us at Taylor Farms. Taylor Farms has always been committed to sustainability and being good stewards of the environment. We began making significant investments to renewable and alternative energy in 2012, and we haven’t looked back. Taylor Farms is always looking for opportunities to maximize value to our customers and grow in capacity as well. The consumer is changing and many want to find products from companies who have sustainability at the core of their business models.

For example, the 2015 Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report states that 66 percent of global consumers say they’re willing to pay more for sustainable brands. This aligns with our mission to provide sustainably sourced products.

Our goal is to make a difference and our retail, deli, and food-service partners recognize that vision and how it translates the story of the product, and our company, to consumers. It makes good business sense, it’s good for the environment, and contributes to raising the bar on sustainability within the entire industry.

What kinds of renewable energy investments has Taylor Farms made?

Our first major investment was in 2012 at our facility in Salinas, CA where we installed a 1 MW fuel cell made by Bloom Energy that converts fuel into electricity through a clean, electro-chemical process. Since then, we have installed a wind turbine, four major solar installations, a cogeneration project as well as a water recycling plant.

This image shows the solar system installed by REC Solar at the Taylor Farms facility in Gonzales, California. You can also see the wind turbine installed at the facility in the background.
This image shows the solar system installed by REC Solar at the Taylor Farms facility in Gonzales, California. You can also see the wind turbine installed at the facility in the background.

Are there any unexpected ways that these investments in renewable energy have impacted your business?

Our commitment to renewable energy projects has brought many benefits to our business. Not only do these investments make good business sense, but they continue to motivate our employees and customers. It’s a great feeling to know that the company you are working for, or purchasing your healthy meal from, is making such a large commitment to doing the right thing.

 

 

What advice would you give to other companies in the food industry who are looking at solar?

Solar power, and other forms of renewable and alternative energy are a great way to manage energy costs in a predictable way and create a platform for promoting sustainable business practices. It’s important for companies in the food industry or any other sector to understand their energy profile to identify the best mix of alternative energy investments that can help the company meet their energy goals. Every company should understand their energy usage and establish an energy strategy for achieving and tracking their goals.

What sort of feedback have you received from end customers, employees, partners and retail buyers about the sustainability efforts?

Taylor Farms’ investments in sustainability projects have been widely embraced by customers and partners nationwide. We plan to continue pursuing opportunities to lead renewables projects across North America, with each project taking the company one-step further in its dedication to minimizing our environmental footprint, while delivering healthy fresh foods to our consumers.

To see more about the Taylor Farms sustainability efforts, visit http://www.taylorfarms.com/art-of-growing/sustainability.