I see things differently than Dr. Saxton re: FRC

In the March 18th edition of the newspaper, FRC Trustee Dr. Trent Saxton made his case for the institution’s responsibility to combat global warning. While I applaud Dr. Saxton’s intentions, I have a different view of FRC’s responsibility and what action(s) they might take.

Let me be clear that I am no opponent of solar PV-generated electricity. To the contrary, I have 7.4 KW of capacity on my own roof that powers our carbonless, Zero Net Energy (ZNE), home in Quincy. I am also an avid energy conservation advocate and promote non-fossil solutions as president of the California Geothermal Heat Pump Association.

Before proceeding, I will note that Dr. Saxton did not credit FRC with having already taken the major step of using geothermal heat pumps to supply heating and cooling to nearly all on-campus buildings. The college has used electric golf carts for on-campus travel for years. There is also an active sustainability committee on campus and an environmental program component within course offerings. Green is good, and it appears to be active on this campus.

Dr. Saxton said that the college president should be tasked with taking FRC to carbonless ZNE in 10 years. He says that “we should put our money where our mouth is,” but his proposals are not feasible, nor do they make economic sense.

He discussed the use of micro-grids and their potential. Although I am a supporter of such technology, I’d like to rebut his recommendation because this is not the best use of a small institution’s budget. 

For a micro-grid to serve the campus and for it to be capable of operating independently of PG&E (never mind achieving carbonless ZNE) an extraordinary degree of on-campus generating capacity would be necessary. Massive amounts of battery storage would also be required.

FRC is tucked into Meylert Ravine and is surrounded by tall trees. If the largest parking area was panel-covered, it could not be oriented southward. Tall trees and a steep ridge would block sunshine, particularly during the low-sun angles of winter. Expensive engineering would be needed to design structures high enough to accommodate buses, delivery trucks, and front-end loaders used for snow removal. Frozen snowfall on panels would render much of the solar capacity worthless during winter, the period of highest electrical demand.

FRC’s major electrical consumption is during fall, winter, and spring. In December, for example, even unshaded panels in Plumas County can expect only 45 percent of potential sunshine. At any point during those three seasons, there isn’t a cost-effective set of batteries large enough to carry the campus’ electrical loads during an unexpected lengthy outage or a 36-hour planned PG&E power shut-down. Back-up generation via fossil fuels, or a campus shut-down, would be required (as it is now).

And in summer, with more sun and lighter overall electrical loads, batteries large enough to store the surplus are too costly. Therefore, no matter what you do, you must remain connected to and dependent on the utility.

Could a commercial Net Energy Metering arrangement be struck with the utility? Perhaps. But until/unless that was accomplished, an expensive deployment of solar panels, inverters, batteries, and new micro-grid switchgear would be a dubious investment. Micro-grids depend on dedicated specialists that the FRC payroll cannot afford. Should there be strategically-placed solar PV capacity somewhere else on campus to offset the utility bill? Certainly, if/when the numbers pencil out. But unless the campus was grid-tied to a larger community, a solo micro-grid investment like this is a loser.

According to a feature in Solar Power World, 3-17-20, solar accounted for 40 percent of all new U.S. electric generating capacity in 2019, an amount that was 23 percent higher than in 2018. And this was achieved despite Trump Section 201 tariffs against imported panels. Solar generation is emission-free, faster to permit and construct, and cheaper than base-load oil, coal, and, in some places, natural gas. It doesn’t depend on water for steam-condensing cycles, which would produce extra humidity, and it creates no waste product — toxic or otherwise. But again, if you haven’t got decent access to solar gain on your property, it might be better to buy into a utility PV array elsewhere that is installed and maintained by them on your behalf.  Large generating arrays within utility systems are now beginning to be coupled to grid-scale battery storage that ramps up to meet demand faster than any other base load technology.

In my view, a major solar-micro-grid investment is not justified because the institution’s load profile against potential generation won’t succeed. Another reason is that a significant share of FRC’s electrical power comes through a purchase consortium, providing power at under five cents per kilowatt hour. With less-than-retail energy prices and geothermal heating and cooling, the school has already eliminated much of its energy costs. Dr. Saxton recommended a baseline audit of energy and resource use. It’s fair to say that the college has been pursuing multiple energy-saving retrofits over a long period already.

The one constant in electric and other forms of energy savings has always been the armoring of the building envelope with more insulation, improved windows, efficient lighting, and the improvement of heating, cooling, and hot water efficiency. FRC already has these. Even though Dr. Saxton recommends LED lighting upgrades, let me remind that T-8 and T-5 fluorescent lighting has the same lumen efficiency as LEDs, though without having as long a life. The new FRC library building got LEDs as part of its construction, but retrofitting all other campus lighting may not pencil out because LED tube-based replacements are far more expensive than what they would replace.

FRC’s new buildings have met thermal codes, and the older temporaries were upgraded long ago. The school’s geothermal heating/cooling system floor space percentage as an entire campus is in the top 10 percent of all 107 community colleges. The original 1989 geo retrofit was a defense against monstrous all-electric bills at the time, and its success has fostered new and retrofitted geo installations for remaining campus buildings.

In recommending audits, Dr. Saxton also mentions water use on campus and specifically water pivots used to irrigate newly acquired ranch land south of Spanish Creek. The college obtains all its water from a well and, more recently, irrigation from the creek itself. I’ve already mentioned FRC’s low cost of power, much of which provides pumping for campus and ranch land irrigation.

It is important to note that regardless of irrigation costs, campus water grows feed for horses and cattle, both of which are part of FRC’s significant Equine and Ranch Management programs. This lowers costs by avoiding higher-priced imported feed. And with the addition of pivot sprinkling, students are being trained in the techniques of irrigation management, something that’s impossible to fully convey from inside a classroom. Students, in effect, have a lab at their disposal to better understand the concepts and the actual operation and maintenance of an irrigation system.

I applaud anyone’s interest in achieving energy savings and institutional leadership for green practices. Aside from specialized conferences and workshops that might involve the local community, I think FRC is currently behaving in a responsible way to do its part in minimizing global warming and the effects of climate change.

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