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Local governments adding renewable energy through grants, partnerships

BUCKEYE – Tucked away in the foothills of White Tank Mountain Regional Park, an unobtrusive building is saving Maricopa County money.

Between the 85-kilowatt solar panel system on its roof and earning the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council, the White Tank Library is estimated to save the county $10,400 per year in energy costs, said Nelson Mitchell, public information officer for the Maricopa County Library District. The solar system, installed using a $540,000 grant under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, supplies 25 percent of the building's annual needs.

"We value energy efficiency as a way of life," Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, the county is using a $2.3 million stimulus grant to install solar hot water systems at two of its jails.

"It makes economic sense," said Jonce Walker, the county's sustainability manager. "If you reduce energy you are saving a lot of money."

Maricopa County is part of a national trend, helped by stimulus money, of local governments investing in solar power, said Carolyn Berndt, principal associate for infrastructure and sustainability with the National League of Cities.

"Energy efficiency is the cheapest and most efficient form of greenhouse gas reduction, and I think these renewable energy projects can save these governments a lot of money in energy costs," she said.

Berndt said that some local governments were already investing in solar projects before stimulus grants were available, but many more are doing so now. She expects more solar projects to pop up around Arizona and the rest of the country as local governments face a deadline of using stimulus money by the end of 2012.

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"I think for local governments it is a win-win," Berndt said. "You are reducing your energy costs by installing these renewable energy solar power systems, and that's the bottom line."

Governments have always been leaders in green initiatives, and it is no different when it comes to energy efficiency and solar power, said Mick Dalrymple, project manager for Arizona State University's Energize Phoenix, a program funded by stimulus dollars.

"Taxpayers and governments own their buildings and they hold them for a long time," Dalrymple said. "When they make improvements to them, taxpayers see the benefits, so it makes a lot of sense."

Installing solar panels is usually the last step in a process of making a building energy efficient, Dalrymple said and that is what many governments focus on first. But adding solar panels to a building once it is energy efficient is an investment with guaranteed returns for governments, he said. Though many solar systems are estimated to pay for themselves in over 20 years when they are first installed, the inevitable increase in electricity rates make them profitable much faster, he said.

In a time of cuts to education, solar power is a way for Riverside Elementary School District in the southwest Valley to inject more money back into the school, said Jaime Rivera, the district's superintendent.

"You try to reduce as much as you can to be able to bring these funds back into the classroom," he said.

Last year, the district partnered with California-based SolarCity to install panels on the roofs of the district's two elementary schools. SolarCity financed, installed, maintains and owns the solar panels and sells the energy to SRP. In return, the schools are guaranteed electricity for no more than 9 cents per kilowatt hour for the next 25 years regardless of peak hours, time of year or rate increases. Rivera said solar is a growing trend among Arizona school districts.

"I think because we are small, we are more light-footed and can put things in place faster than maybe larger school districts," he said.

As for Maricopa County, Walker said the investment in renewable energy won't stop once the stimulus money is gone. Already the county has set a goal of increasing their current renewable energy capacity from 6 megawatts to 8 megawatts by 2015.

"Quite frankly there is a lot of opportunity still," Walker said. "We are by no means done."

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Alyson Zepeda/Cronkite News Service

In addition to solar panels supplying 25 percent of its electricity needs, White Tank Library, operated by Maricopa County, was built to earn the highest rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.

70 percent of counties have sustainability plans

In a poll of 508 counties nationwide, the National Association of Counties found that 70 percent had sustainability initiatives. The bulk of those initiatives involved energy efficiency and generating renewable energy. In fact, renewable energy was the largest and fastest growing category for future investment in sustainability measures.