One of the laws of physics dictates that you can’t create more energy than you expend—but one of the laws of economics says that you can create more value in energy efficiency and local generating capacity than it costs to build the project. That was the critical factor that Yuba County put to work when the aging HVAC system in the County Courthouse needed to be replaced.
After more than 40 years of struggling to keep the courthouse warm in the winter and cool through Yuba County’s 100-degree summers, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system was on its last legs. Not only was it costly to operate and maintain—it was frequently out of order. As one person in Yuba County told me, “Judges don’t like it much when the AC isn’t working in their courtroom.” The system was so old they could barely get parts for it anymore, so they knew they had to replace it.
But this was in the middle of the recession. Budgets weren’t just tight, they were shrinking. Yuba County didn’t have the cash flow to replace the aging Courthouse system. What to do?
They ended up calling an energy service company to come in and take a look. The company analyzed their energy bills and made some recommendations. They would structure a loan that would allow Yuba County to replace the aging Courthouse HVAC system with a modern, much more efficient system—and they would also install solar panels on two county buildings and make energy efficiency improvements in other facilities.
It cost about $10 million to do all that work. How does that make sense in the middle of declining budgets and a recession? Well, here’s the rub. Yuba County was paying about $1 million a year in energy costs. With the new solar panels producing about a megawatt of energy for the county, and the other efficiency measures cutting their energy usage, that million dollar annual energy bill has been cut in half. Yuba County is using the savings to make the project loan payments. When it’s paid off in about 16 years, Yuba County gets to keep the savings. And in the meantime, the Courthouse is nice and comfortable.
This project helped Yuba County replace aging (near failing) infrastructure while reducing costs and environmental impact. What’s more, the project has become a source of pride and “can do” spirit among Yuba County employees. It’s all good!