Council moves forward with solar panel study on city facilities, electric fleet conversion


City Council this week unanimously agreed on several items to move forward on the solar panel assessment for city facilities and electric fleet conversion.

Councilmembers voted 5-0 on Tuesday (March 26) to proceed with issuing a request for proposals for implementing a microgrid resiliency system for four potential sites, along with other locations that staff believes could be viable. They also directed staff to return with the three potential reserve power options (24, 48, or 72 hours) for each of the sites in a matrix form.

The four proposed sites are: Corporation yard, City Hall campus and lift station, Susi Q Senior and Community Center, and the Laguna Beach Community and Recreation Center (formerly St. Catherine of Siena School). Council also requested adding three other properties (Laguna Playhouse, Festival of the Arts and the animal shelter), if viable.

The ultimately approved motion also included a preference for providing U.S.-based built solar panels and battery power, but not limiting it to those.

Council also directed the city manager to retain Optony Inc. for a cost not to exceed $75,000 to serve as an owner’s representative for tasks related to preparing an RFP and financial findings on the proposals received.

The action also authorized the city manager to execute a $130,000 consultant services agreement with ICF Incorporated, LLC, for the preparation of a fleet electrification and electric vehicle charging implementation plan, along with a $20,000 contingency amount.

Councilmembers also heard an update on the status of the development of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

Councilmembers were supportive of the overall effort.

“It’s good to be bringing this thing to fruition and I’m supportive of all of it,” said Councilmember Bob Whalen.

There is a lot of different factors that go into the overarching effort, some noted.

“This is like a three-legged stool,” said Councilmember George Weiss. “You have to build the solar power, the battery backup (and) the infrastructure.”

Stepping back and considering what success is when it comes to climate action, the notable accomplishment will be when the plan gets implemented, said Mayor Pro Tem Alex Rounaghi.

“To me, success is not a beautifully written report, success is action,” he said. “Then the question becomes how do we move beyond analysis paralysis and start studying this and figure out how we move forward.”

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Rounaghi suggested retaining an owner’s representative who won’t have a financial interest in the project and will be able to give the city staff technical assistance and ensure they get the right pricing as they work with solar developers. It’s a proven model that’s worked in the past, he noted.

“We can really do it in the way that’s the best for us,” he said. “I really think having an owner’s representative is going to be very critical to making sure that we get this right.”

Since the city manager can execute contracts under $75,000 without an RFP, Rounaghi recommended authorizing the CM to execute an owner’s representative solar procurement contract up to that limit.

Although Assistant City Manager Jeremy Frimond warned the council that idea may not work, financially, as it may not scale appropriately.

Jonathan Whelan, Optony vice president of on-site energy programs, confirmed that the procurement management could be broken up into multiple tasks: Putting together an RFP, going through the proposals and preparing financial findings (that leads to a decision), and then supporting contract negotiations.

“If there are some break-ups out of those three tasks that would make things easier for the city, we’re happy to be flexible,” he said.

They don’t expect city staff to become an expert on this one project, Whelan commented, and so that’s where they come in and essentially act on behalf of the municipality to get the project done.

Rounaghi recommended directing staff to enter into an agreement with Optony for the first two tasks, which should total less than $75,000. That way, they don’t have to wait until May to move forward with the RFP, he commented.

Other councilmembers were anxious to move the project forward.

“I just want to make sure we get something done here,” said Mayor Sue Kempf. “I want to get stuff done.”

She emphasized keeping it simple and moving the process forward.

That’s what this process will do, Rounaghi confirmed.

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“If we’re trying to design this from the dais, we’re not going to get what we want,” he said. “This is the best way forward to actually get some good bids and not be overly restrictive or adding sites that might not be viable.”

Council established the installation of solar panels on city facilities as a top priority for staff to pursue this year at the annual planning workshop on January 19. In response, staff presented the results of the CAAP’s microgrid study, which provides the council with conceptual layouts and direct purchase cost estimates for four city locations.

A microgrid system is a solar panel system that is connected to a battery energy storage system, Frimond explained. The panels generate power directly for the facility, he added.

The microgrid study explores the establishment of smaller, self-sufficient power systems using renewable energy sources, to enhance local electricity reliability and availability. The city’s study evaluated the corporation yard, city hall campus and lift station, Susi Q Center and the LBCRC.

The report considered energy consumption at each facility, plus projected increases based on the fleet electrification and electric vehicle charging infrastructure master plan.

With the microgrid systems installed, they would reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15%, Frimond said.

“That’s the measurable reduction from these proposed programs,” he said.

It’s about $15 million worth of infrastructure, Frimond noted.

These are concepts that are meant to give the council a sense of the footprint, he emphasized, referring to the images in the presentation that show an overlay of the potential location of solar panels. These are not the final designs, he said.

The Susi Q Senior and Community Center was included because of its cooling center and its frequent use by the community, Frimond said. Due to shade location at the site, considering the number and sizing of solar panels over a 25-year lifespan, from a cost perspective, it “doesn’t really pan out,” Frimond noted. It would result in a negative return on investment, he added, and the net present value would also be negative.

“The upfront cost will exceed the 25-year utility savings and credits and so forth,” he said.

The corporation yard was chosen predominantly because operations and the city’s fleet run out of the property. This site would yield a positive return on investment, Frimond noted, particularly the 24-hour system.

LBCRC was considered primarily because it will be the future site of the city’s emergency operations center and the gymnasium may be able to serve as an evacuation center. The consultant recommended a 48-hour system for this site (rather than the 24-hour systems as suggested for the other locations), because this property does not have a generator, Frimond explained.

The city hall campus and lift station were also studied since city and public safety operations are run from the site. Each system shows a generally good return on investment, Frimond noted.

The next stage of this process would be preparing an RFP, refining the cost estimates using the specifications identified and looking at different purchasing options. The goal is to provide this information by the budget workshop on May 14.

“We want to be able to enthusiastically work towards providing all this information, plus the additional direction by May, but there’s a lot to work through,” Frimond said.

Although councilmembers agreed that having the numbers at the May budget workshop would be good, they encouraged staff to “do the best you can.”

Rounaghi also supported moving forward with the four sites, plus any additional sites that staff and the representative feel are viable and should be considered by the council. That way, by the time of the May workshop, they can consider various proposals submitted for the different sites.

“We’re going to have an informed ability to look at different options in front of us. I think that’s the best solution to move us forward,” he said.

There was also some discussion about which reserve power system (24, 48, or 72 hours) would be best for each site.

Whalen was leaning toward the longer power reserve systems for the corporation yard. It may be more expensive up front, but the value it would provide extends beyond the financial considerations.

“That’s kind of a hub, that’s the nerve center, for our fleet. Why wouldn’t we want to have a 72-hour resiliency there? I’m not saying that’s the right answer, that’s just my gut. I’d want to have more, not less.”

He also suggested evaluating each spot recommended for solar panels at each location, particularly the city hall campus, for the visual impacts.

The corporation yard makes sense, but they should also look at the lift stations, Kempf added.

“We should focus on where our biggest vulnerabilities are,” Kempf said. “We can lose one lift station and have a disaster.”

The city has faced “tremendous” liability for sewages spills, which is due to a variety of factors, but a lack of power to the lift station could cause that, Whalen pointed out.

“I think it’s great we’d have some backup on the city hall lift station, which drives the main line down to the coastal treatment plant,” he said.

As a second phase to this project, they might want to consider all of the lift stations citywide, Whalen suggested.

“To make sure that if power goes out, we don’t have a sewer problem at the same time,” he said.

They absolutely will look into that, Frimond responded. Staff has heard that this is a priority for the council and this is the opportunity to look into it, he added.

“That was the intent of this report,” Frimond said. “Not only to identify four sites upfront that are these high priority sites, but create a playbook for the future because this isn’t a one-stop project.”

It’s a process, he added, and as they better understand the city’s energy requirements they can further study the lift stations and other locations in the community.

Whalen asked (which was added to the ultimately approved motion) staff to return with ideas or recommendations for the lift stations. They shouldn’t be included in the RFP bid process, but potentially for the future, he clarified.

The item also included work on the fleet electrification project.

In June 2023, a report on the fleet electrification and electric vehicle charging infrastructure master plan was presented to council, who directed staff to engage a consultant to prepare an EV implementation plan. After a competitive RFP process, staff was scheduled to present a contract award during the March 26. Staff determined that merging the microgrid study project with the city’s EV infrastructure endeavors would be mutually beneficial.

The coordination will ensure they are in lockstep between the two efforts and find where they can save and be the most efficient, said Assistant City Engineer Frank Lopez.

“It just makes sense that if we’re going to convert our fleet to electric vehicles, which are going to drop power, rather than always paying an electric bill on that, that we source some of that ourselves through the solar panels and have a net zero, hopefully, cost,” he commented.

Tuesday’s item also included an update on CAAP. Overall, the project remains within budget, according to staff, although there is an anticipated two-month delay in presenting the final report, now expected later in 2024. The delay comes from the decision to enhance key foundational documents.

They are about halfway through the project, Frimond said. Staff has completed the greenhouse gas inventory, vulnerability assessment, target setting and a gap analysis. The consultant also just recently provided staff with a draft of the report on reduction and adaptation strategies.

Next steps include developing an implementation and monitoring plan, the California Environmental Quality Act process and ultimately adoption of the CAAP.

There will be plenty of opportunities for public input, Frimond added.

During public comment, a handful of residents spoke in favor of the overall effort and provided some suggestions, like including the animal shelter as a facility to study for solar panels and finding the “sweet spot” in the return on investment for the power reserve systems while still considering the system benefits and what’s at stake if the city were to lose power during an emergency.


Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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