When the city of Lancaster took on the challenge of creating a sustainable net-zero energy community, its true purpose ran much deeper: Establish long-term partnerships, devise win-win revenue streams and create a self-support infrastructure that will be a template for other communities far into the future.
Over six years ago, Lancaster, Calif., Mayor R. Rex Parris attended a business conference in Dubai and realized that, like the Middle East, Lancaster has an abundant location-based energy resource, one that was far more economical to produce and entirely renewable: the sun.
When he returned to Lancaster, Parris checked solar radiation maps for the U.S. and found there were no better places to harness the power of the sun than right at home in the Antelope Valley.
The mayor then set the city goal: to become a net-zero energy community — one that greatly reduces energy needs through the efficient use of renewable energy. His first project was to convert city hall to solar energy. Through a straight Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with Solar City, who would own and maintain the power for 20 years, city hall went solar. The benefits were immediate: Energy costs dropped by half.
In the process, the mayor and his staff realized that the city’s future prosperity was closely tied to solar energy. They also saw that this was essentially a straightforward technology and, with the right business-friendly policies and strategic partnerships, they could become an energy company and control the commodity to their community’s advantage.
To create an environment favorable to business and the expansion of solar energy production, the mayor and the city council revised land use policies and zoning codes, and streamlined the inspection process. Where other municipalities restricted and made development more difficult, Lancaster opened its doors to anyone who wanted to develop cost-effective solar energy.
Lancaster Power Authority was established so the city could own and manage its energy assets for the benefit of its residents, customers, property owners and businesses. It was then able to pursue and develop more solar energy opportunities that involved generation, sale and transmission. The city entered into a partnership with the Eastside and Lancaster School Districts to install solar energy-producing parking shade structures at 26 school sites. This was the city’s first revenue stream from renewable energy and, in addition to being a technical feat, it was the first partnership between the city, school districts, private enterprise and financiers. In total, these school sites generate an estimated $325,000 per year in electrical savings and are projected to save more than $8 million over the next 25 years.
Through the Lancaster Power Authority, the city now has access to everyone’s account and can pinpoint peak load and annual demand. The amount of data transferred in the community is enormous: millions of data points,15-minute interval usage from every customer, every day of the year, approaching real-time usage. Added into the data mix is the tracking of permits approved for solar developing, how much self-generation is occurring (the city is the per capita state leader in residential retrofits for solar panel installation) and how much energy is being purchased. And it all can be used to more accurately measure progress toward net-zero energy goals.
In 2014, Lancaster became the first California city to form a Community Choice Aggregation —Lancaster Choice Energy — based on a state law allowing cities and counties to procure energy on behalf of their citizens. The city generates the energy into the system and the utility company (Edison, in this case) distributes it. Municipal customers — the city accounts — started service in May 2015, and by October 2015, 56,000 customers, or about 80 percent of the population, will have access to electricity provided by Lancaster Choice Energy.
Parris is clear about the direction his city is taking.
“Lancaster’s ongoing efforts to become the major hub of solar energy generation and distribution serve two purposes," he said. "The first is to empower our residents and business owners with the ability to choose their source for power.” They can now switch to Lancaster Choice Energy, which provides a number of options, including 100 percent solar for nearly the same cost, plus the customer will also be supporting the sustainability and economy of their community — the money they pay stays local.
The second purpose, the mayor said, is to “utilize the natural attributes of our geographical location in order to create an additional revenue stream, which will further secure our ability to maintain programs and services for our citizens, especially during times of economic hardship.” Reducing business energy costs not only increases operational income, but it is also an important incentive for business owners to relocate to Lancaster.
Currently Lancaster has dozens of solar projects and more than a gigawatt of power already developed inside the city limits — most of them public-private partnerships. Lancaster leverages private developer ability to get interconnection agreements, land use authority, and engineering and designs, and then partners with them to buy the energy.
There are many environmental benefits to Lancaster’s net-zero energy goal, but Parris, a Republican, notes that adopting a sustainable energy approach also makes good dollars and sense. As of April 2015, private solar developments have generated more than 1,100 jobs in Lancaster.
A few years back, Parris led a project with Chinese manufacturing leader BYD and homebuilding giant KB Home to create a “Home of the Future,” which utilized BYD solar panels, LED lighting, residential energy storage and efficiency technologies to create an affordable green energy home.
“This innovative use of cutting-edge technology, coupled with the ability of the BYD/KB team to think outside the box to create the most affordable … green energy home our country had ever seen, was truly inspiring,” said Parris. “This cemented the concept in my mind that BYD must be part of Lancaster’s future. Their developing technologies dovetail perfectly with our community’s sustainable energy goals, while also providing stable green jobs for local residents.”
In 2013, BYD opened its first two U.S. manufacturing plants in Lancaster with the intention to produce electric city buses and large-scale batteries.
Utilities in California are being challenged to meet the state-mandated 30 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2030. Through its many net-zero energy community projects, Lancaster is showing how a community can actively support this goal, create local jobs and achieve greater control of its own energy future.
A key characteristic of the sustainable community dynamic is that expansion lies not in the previous century’s “bigger is better” solutions, but in smarter cooperative systems and greater intercommunity integration. To that end, Lancaster is extending itself into a number of joint powers authority arrangements with other municipalities to more efficiently and economically develop and share power infrastructures.
The underlying driver of Lancaster’s success is simplicity, responsiveness, partnerships and a genuine desire from every point in the city — and from its citizens — to live a lifestyle that gives back more than it takes.
“Contributing to the generation of much needed alternative energy should not be as complicated as it is throughout much of our nation,” said Parris. “As we push forward toward our net-zero goals, it is imperative that the city continues to facilitate the development of alternative energy facilities and solar fields, as the cost-efficiency, employment and many environmental benefits associated with the alternative energy industry are undeniable.”