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Petaluma can get a better solar deal

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Petaluma is thinking about going solar. That’s great news for taxpayers as solar panels on municipal buildings could eventually save the city millions of dollars on energy bills.

It’s also great news for humanity as more renewable energy helps combat climate change, which is one of Petaluma’s most important stated goals.

But before the city rushes into a longterm solar contract, leaders should do their homework and get the best system possible.

A solar developer called Forefront Power recently pitched the city on a proposal to install solar arrays on four municipal buildings. The city would buy the power that the panels generate at a savings of $2.2 million over 20 years. Act by the end of the year, and the city could take advantage of a tax credit, Forefront said.

This all sounds like a good deal until you start asking questions.

What could other solar developers offer? That’s unclear. The city didn’t solicit bids from other developers.

In a power outage, could this system keep the lights on? No. That would require backup battery storage.

Can we get a battery backup system? No. It’s too expensive, a Forefront representative told the city without providing a price.

The last point is important because battery backup is key to making a true micro-grid, which would reduce the reliance on electricity delivered by PG&E, especially as power outages become more frequent.

Solar panels can charge a battery, which can power a building at night or for days during a power outage. It also reduces the need for fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Tesla’s Powerwall, for example, can power a 6,000-square-foot home on solar alone for $20,000. It’s one of several companies that make this increasingly popular equipment.

The Petaluma City Schools District, which has solar panels on all of its schools, recently signed a contract with Terra Verde Energy, a consultant, to study the costs of creating a micro-grid for the district.

Exploring solar for city buildings is an excellent idea, and one that the newly formed Climate Action Commission should discuss before the City Council weighs in.

Ultimately, the city shouldn’t just jump at the first solar deal, locking in a 20-year contract without battery backup. The city should take its time, solicit bids from multiple developers, and come up with the best longterm solar plan for Petaluma.

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