Solar Power and Public Institutions

The recent announcement of a partnership between Merrill Lynch, SolarCity and the Department of Defense to provide solar power for military housing is perhaps the biggest and most well-known public-private solar power development. But the economics of solar and innovative financing options are becoming increasingly attractive to public institutions across the nation. Despite budget crunches in a lot of states, the long-term rate of return for solar appears to have staying power and appeal beyond the environmental benefits alone. In San Diego County, a prison that is using solar panels to shade its parking lot is getting 14 percent of their power from the new installation.

One such innovative financing option, put forth by the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), asks rate payers to chip in a few bucks extra per month on their electric bills to help pay for solar panels for cash-strapped public schools. When I got this promotion in my electric bill, I signed up to chip in $5 extra per month. Why not? Good cause, right? Well, maybe. The utility has been tasked with turning to clean, renewable energy for 70 percent of generation by 2050, the most aggressive such standard in the nation. So isn’t the responsibility for the financing of these projects that of HECO itself?

The return mail postcard asking for my contribution didn’t have a website for more information, so I searched for the program on HECO’s website. Program details are fuzzy at best. By chipping in, I am helping HECO fulfill its stated role in the partnership between it, and the State Department of Education:

Hawaiian Electric Company is conducting a green pricing program where electric customers have the opportunity to make voluntary contributions to encourage the development of renewable energy. Monies are placed in a Sun Power for Schools fund which is used to install AC grid-connected photovoltaic power systems at selected schools. HECO will operate and maintain the systems for two years after installation.

Two years? What happens after that? And does the school still pay for the power? I tried to reach a representative from HECO but no one seemed to know who I should talk to, and after bouncing around for an hour or so, I decided investigative journalism has its limits.

Do you know of other strange financing options for renewable energy? And if so, what is your assessment?

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Photo courtesy HECO website

Scott Cooney, Principal of GreenBusinessOwner.com and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched GreenBusinessOwner.com, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.