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Petaluma signs solar deal

Petaluma entered into the city’s first solar power purchase agreement, ending a nine-month effort to reach a deal that will add solar panels to four city properties and save taxpayers $2.9 million over 20 years in energy costs.

The City Council last week voted 7-0 to strike the deal with San Francisco-based Forefront at no cost to the city. But Petaluma residents who said they have studied municipal solar energy purchases say the city could have achieved an even better deal by opening the procurement process to multiple bidders.

The city’s initial solar arrays, set for the police station, swim center, community center and airport, are part of the deal through a state authority known as School Project for Utility Rate Reduction, which uses the scale of local governments statewide to attract the best solar deal. Forefront is the authority’s selected contractor.

Patrick Carter, Petaluma’s senior management analyst, said Forefront would install and maintain the solar panels and sell the power they generate back to the city at a rate cheaper than PG&E or Sonoma Clean Power.

“Not only is there no costs up front, but we realize savings throughout the entire term of this project,” he said, adding that the city has an option to buy the panels or have them removed at no cost after 20 years.

The panels do not come with batteries for storing energy during power outages. Carter said that option would have been too expensive, but the city is exploring other ways to fund battery storage and create so-called microgrids.

“Energy storage was not feasible in this arrangement, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up,” Carter said. “We’re exploring options for inclusion of energy storage with Sonoma Clean Power and looking for other grant funding sources.”

Petaluma resident Ben Peters, who works in renewable energy, said the city should have launched a request for proposals to get a better deal. Other municipal solar deals around the state that Peters said he looked included more savings or other perks like battery storage or electric car chargers.

“You are not getting the best pricing, that’s the bottom line here,” he said.

Resident Brian Barnacle, who has followed the solar deal, said the city could do better.

“You’re just not doing the best thing for Petaluma. It’s maddening to see this,” he said. “It’s just fiscally irresponsible. ... In the end, we’re not going to get the best deal.”

Mayor Teresa Barrett said that there would be other opportunities to add solar to city facilities, and she encouraged residents to remain engaged in the process.

Carter said other places where solar panels could be added include City Hall, the fire stations and the Cavanagh Recreation Center. The city’s biggest energy user, the Ellis Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility, would be a good location for floating solar panels atop wastewater ponds, Carter said.

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer said she wanted input from community experts before moving ahead with solar deals at other city buildings.

“I would suggest that we do move forward with the community’s desire to assist us and take a look at our other facilities,” she said.

Councilman Dave King said he was excited to strike the current deal, and he wanted to achieve more solar projects in Petaluma.

“I’m looking forward to this project finally getting up and running,” he said. “Having solar panels throughout the city has been a goal of mine since I got on the council.”

It was unclear when the solar panels would be installed, although Forefront has detailed plans for the sites. The project does not require an environmental impact report because it would make only minor changes to existing buildings.

Carter said the renewable energy from the panels would help the city meet its climate goals. Petaluma last year declared a climate energency with a goal of becoming carbon neutral within 25 years.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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