Santa Barbara County's solar project on Calle Real generated more power than expected since being installed five years ago.

“This project is an epic loser,” according to 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam, objecting to the $5.5 million solar project now producing emission-free energy above the County Jail and county office campus on Calle Real. He added that it will take 13 years to pay off and only offers bond buyers a 1.2 percent rate of return. With such unimpressive numbers, Adam said, the project had to have been financed by “The Bank of Unicorns and Rainbows.” Supervisor Steve Lavagnino replied, “You’d be crazy not to take it, right?” The project was a success, Supervisor Das Williams countered, according to the standards in place when it was proposed in 2010. It also saves the county more than $1 million on its energy bill.

In the five years since the large array of solar panels was installed on the hillside above County Jail, the electricity produced has surpassed expectations, the county supervisors heard from staff. Instead of the 8.9 million kilowatts projected, the solar cells generated 9.7 million kw and saved the county about $1.2 million in electricity costs. The photovoltaics power the county government buildings along Calle Real, except the transfer station. On a sunny day, they produce all the electricity the campus uses.

The $5.5 million cost was offset by a $1.7 million rebate from SoCal Edison, staff explained, with the resulting net cost of $3.8 million for the solar panels. During its first five years, the project has actually had a return on investment — in the form of the rebate and electricity savings that are larger than costs — of 39 percent, explained County General Services’ Skip Grey after the meeting. Even excluding the rebate from Edison, he added, over the photovoltaic system’s 25-year lifetime, the electricity savings alone exceed costs by 38 percent.

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