The city is poised to invest more than $10 million in a host of solar projects, including putting panels on the roof of the Tucson Convention Center's exhibit hall.
The projects will also include maxing out the 51,000 square feet of roof space at the Thomas O. Price service center at South Park Avenue and East Ajo Way.
And they will pay to install some 150 solar parking spaces at two police stations and have some installed at the new crime lab at the police substation at West Miracle Mile and North Flowing Wells Road. The solar panel parking provides shade for cars while generating electricity for the buildings.
The city is funding the projects with Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, which aren't funded by the general fund. The money is paid back with rebates from Tucson Electric Power as well as with money that otherwise would have been spent on the utility bills.
The city has invested in about two dozen solar projects since its first one - Shirley Scott's Ward 4 council office - in 1999.
While none of the projects covers the full load of electricity usage, they've still saved money over time, according to the city staff. So far, said solar energy coordinator Bruce Plenk, the city saved $216,000 on utility costs in fiscal 2010-11 on its collection of previous solar projects. Halfway through the fiscal year, the city has saved about $76,000.
The new round of projects will generate about 3.5 million kilowatt hours per year. With a typical residential solar project generating about 8,750 kilowatt hours, that's roughly the equivalent of 400 houses fitted with solar.
The Thomas Price center will be about 1,000 kilowatt hours - that's twice the size of the city's largest project to date at the Public Safety Training Academy at 10001 S. Wilmot Road.
The panels have a guaranteed lifetime of about 25 years. Plenk said the goal is to pay them off in 12, leaving 13 years of life on the panels.
Plenk said there's still more work to be done to make solar more accessible.
Tucson in 2007 received a Solar America City grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for $200,000, recognizing the city as a place that was doing a number of solar projects. The city won a second round of those grants for about $350,000 in 2009. The grants were intended to identify and eliminate barriers to solar installations in and around Tucson.
Plenk said in the first round, the city identified two barriers, the first being education. Since then, Pima County and the city have teamed up to develop the Solar One Stop website, which provides information about everything solar on one site, from a list of installers to licensing information and permit requirements.
The other hurdle the city identified was cost. Plenk said that's starting to change as prices drop. Plus, he contends, it's sometimes a matter of priorities. He tells the story of a man telling him solar is too expensive yet was willing to plunk down $12,000 on granite countertops.
Plenk said federal tax credits that kick back 30 percent of the costs are good until 2016. Also available is a state tax credit capped at a one-time credit of $1,000.
Solar is indeed starting to catch on, said Joe Salkowski, a spokesman for Tucson Electric Power. The number of residential rooftop photovoltaic systems jumped from about 1,800 through 2010 to about 2,500 this year, he said. Some 1,500 households have installed solar hot-water systems as well. "We've had more interest in these systems in the past two years than in the eight years that preceded them," Salkowski said. "More and more customers are coming to the conclusion that these systems make sense for them in their homes or business."
But even Plenk will say solar is not the entire answer to the energy picture. "You don't want to get too narrowly focused on solar. We need to reduce our dependence on outside utilities, but where your money is best spent is on energy conservation. Solar is just one prong of a number of things the city is doing."
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at email@example.com or 573-4243.