By Mike McCormick.

While cities across California continue to struggle financially, many are realizing that there is one expense that is entirely under their control – their electricity bill.

Advancements in technology have made solar arrays and LED lights more accessible than ever. What’s more, private sector companies promoting these new technologies are working with cities to finance energy retrofit endeavors so that many different types of projects can be employed with little to no cost to the municipality. Throw in some rebates from the utility companies, and the question shifts from “why retrofit” to “why not?”

Solar Arrays

Early in 2010, the City of Ridgecrest broke ground on a 496 kilowatt (kW) solar array. The project, which included over 2,000 panels mounted on frames designed to rotate in response to the movement of the sun, was completed in just two months. Working with Borrego Solar, the city utilized a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to finance the project. Under the terms of the PPA, Borrego Solar absorbed the costs of the installation, and maintains ownership of the facility. They sell the generated power to the city at below-the-grid rates saving Ridgecrest nearly $200,000 annually.

Using a similar PPA eement, the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) installed a system nearly three and a half times the size of the one in Ridgecrest, at no capital expense to the public agency or its ratepayers. In addition to saving over $1.7 million, the facility is expected to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by over 100 million pounds over the next 30 years. Not only is the city providing less expensive water to over 3.2 million residents, they are also preventing pollution equivalent (see here) to if they had removed 9,400 cars from the road.

LED Streetlights

Streetlights typically represent a city’s single largest energy cost item, draining as much as 60% of a city’s electricity budget. So when Southern California Edison announced that cities would be allowed to purchase and then retrofit their streetlights, municipalities took notice.

The City of Los Angeles embarked on a major LED retrofit campaign in 2009, replacing every bulb not deemed historically protected. As a result, the city has seen a 63% reduction in energy use, translating to more than $7 million in savings annually. The city also estimates that it saved $2.5 million in maintenance costs. Citizens will notice fewer lights in need of repair and better nighttime visibility while experiencing a reduction in pollution equivalent to removing 9,700 cars from the roads.

Cities from Yountville to Lemoore are using PPA agreements, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants, and low interest loans to retrofit their infrastructure and save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. With so little to lose and so much to gain, it’s no wonder these types of projects are becoming a trend.

The Independent Cities Finance Authority (ICFA), is excited about the opportunities presented by both solar and LED technology. To facilitate discussion about how cities can best take advantage of the options available, ICFA is hosting a half-day seminar titled Energy Retrofit: How California Cities are Overhauling Infrastructure for Greater Sustainability. Panelists will join us from local municipalities as well as private sector companies to share their experiences in integrating solar array and LED streetlights.

For more information, please visit ICFA’s seminar here.

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Mike McCormick is Mayor of Vernon, CA and President of ICFA. The organization is hosting a seminar on the topic of sustainable cities on March 20th from 9am- 1pm. For more information, please visit, email Executive Director Debbie Smith, or call (877) 906-0941.

Photo courtesy of Borrego Solar Systems, Inc.