Also serving the communities of De Luz, Rainbow, Camp Pendleton, Pala and Pauma

Santa Margarita solar power plan would link Temecula, SDSU and others

A complex deal is taking shape to tap the power of the sun to cut Temecula’s operating costs and get rid of a fire hazard and an environmental nuisance.

The deal, which has received a green light from the Temecula City Council, is being touted as a unique arrangement in the region.

“This is the first one that I’m familiar with,” said Greg Butler, Temecula’s assistant city manager. “It’s a neat project, but it wasn’t easy to put together.”

The deal breaks new ground because of the number of players, the partnership between an array of agencies and investors, and the possibility that it might be repeated elsewhere in the future.

“People are really interested in this,” said Paul E. Galindo, an owner of Go Green Consultants, the Sacramento-area firm that has the lead role in the electricity generating and sharing arrangement. “Other cities will learn from what we do.”

Galindo splits his time between being a church pastor and a representative of the solar investment and installation firm. He hopes the unfolding arrangement will bear fruit as his firm’s fourth project and its biggest to date. He is also counting on God to be a silent partner in the plan.

“I believe God’s hand is in it,” Galindo said in a recent telephone interview.

In essence, the deal calls for Go Green to build a solar power generating plant that would supply part of Temecula’s energy needs. Temecula would save money by purchasing a portion of its electricity needs from the plant rather than Southern California Edison. The city would buy the power it receives from the plant at a rate 10 percent lower than Edison charges.

Butler said Temecula would save about $60,000 a year if the plant is built.

In turn, the investors would shoulder the costs to clear the land and install solar panels in a fire-prone eucalyptus grove in the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve.

A partnership formed by Go Green expects to spend about $5 million to cut down the 22-acre grove, cover much of it with solar panels and restore the area at the close of the plant’s 20-year operational period.

The partnership has spent $200,000 thus far on plans, environmental studies and other costs, Galindo said. The investors will receive the tax credits that cannot be reaped by a public agency. They will also receive revenue from a share of the energy produced.

Go Green was picked after a panel examined proposals submitted by six or seven applicants, said Temecula Councilman Matt Rahn, who has played a pivotal role in researching the plan’s feasibility and financing.

“They had a superior proposal compared to everybody else,” said Rahn.

Rahn, who taught at SDSU in the past and once managed the Santa Margarita Reserve, said he literally outlined the concept of a solar generating plant on a bar napkin about three years ago. He said the project relies on a state law that authorizes the use of tax credits for energy-related projects that benefit public agencies.

“I came up with the idea and said: ‘How can we get this done?” he recalled.

Over the course of an extended analysis, Rahn said he and the other participants identified a range of potential benefits. Those benefits include helping a pair of public agencies cut costs, restoring degraded habitat, eliminating a fire hazard and conducting a long-range study on how a solar plant can interface with wildlife and hundreds of native plant species.

Reserve officials are anxious to cut down the invasive trees because they are a fire hazard and they dominate native plants. But removing trees is an expensive process, a six-figure cost that the officials have not been able to squeeze into the reserve’s tight budget.

Rahn and reserve officials want to determine if a solar plant can mesh with a wilderness setting and if such uses can finance needed improvements at other reserves or publicly-owned tracts. The reserve is a 4,422-acre tract of rugged canyons and hillsides that straddles Riverside and San Diego counties. It was established in 1962, and it is operated by San Diego State University as a field station and research hub.

Permission must be granted by reserve officials to explore the area, hike the five-mile river gorge or visit its historical and archeological sites. The sprawling reserve is split by the meandering Santa Margarita River. The river forms at the confluence of several creeks in the Temecula area and flows 27 miles to the ocean. It is the last untamed river in Southern California.

The Temecula City Council formally approved its solar power purchase agreement on May 10. Galindo and his fellow investors hope to soon craft a similar agreement with another public agency in the region. When that next agreement comes together, the solar generating project is expected to leap off the drawing board and into its wilderness setting.

Galindo said he expects the environmental review process will be finished in November. That would clear the way for tree removal work to begin in the eucalyptus grove, he said.

“Anyone who lives in that area knows it’s a terrible fire hazard,” said Galindo. “It’s really combustible.”

 

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