Gila Community College (GCC) could have covered parking by the end of the year — oh, and run on solar energy, too.
The GCC board moved one step closer to breaking ground on its own solar energy system at its meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 29 by signing a letter of intent with Folium Energy, an alternative energy financing company.
Folium, based in Texas, is a producer, project developer and investor in alternative energies, including solar, wind and biomass.
For the past year, the GCC board has worked with Tom Harris, a consultant with PV Advanced Concepts to make all the pieces fit together. Harris, the managing partner, works with Arizona schools and rural counties to bring solar projects to these institutions.
The state of Arizona has some of the most aggressive green energy goals in the country. APS (Arizona Public Service) has created programs and incentives for non-profits, schools, and local governments to help reduce the load on the grid and carbon in the environment, said Harris.
GCC is the latest school in the Rim Country to pursue solar.
“This is just a formality,” said board president Larry Stephenson after the meeting. He said the college has already signed a letter of intent with Sunrenu, a Scottsdale-based company that will construct the project. At this meeting, Stephenson said the board simply needed to close the loop with Folium.
But, board member Tom Loeffler had Harris, and John McDonnell, a managing partner of Folium, wait outside — a bit anxiously — as the board went into executive session to discuss the difference between Folium and an alternative financing company, Tioga.
Doing his due diligence, Loeffler had met with GCC Senior Dean Steve Cullen and legal counsel Brian Chambers in Globe to compare a contract from Tioga, a larger company from California, with Folium’s contract.
“We went through the Folium contract in detail and into Tioga’s contract,” said Loeffler, “I tried to summarize what I felt is still needed in the contracts.”
As Harris and McDonnell waited outside, they explained how solar projects for institutions such as GCC come together.
“The Arizona Corporation Commission mandates the college change,” said Harris.
In 2006, the Commission instituted a tariff to require electric companies to create 15 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2025. Companies such as Harris’ fanned out to focus on converting public institutions to use solar power.
“Schools, colleges and county governments are viewed as a good organization to write a 20-year contract,” said Harris.
Solar companies regularly sign these decades-long contracts to pay off the investors in the project.
Investors are necessary because, while a public institution is a safe bet in the long term, they do not have the up-front dollars necessary to pay for the solar equipment and the construction costs. Yet they do have the longevity to pay back the investors, said Harris.
How it works out for the investors is that they pay the construction and equipment costs up front and then use tax write-off benefits over the next 20 years to recoup their investment.
The investment company then finds a construction partner to build the system. GCC has to have a contract with both entities.
However, unlike a homeowner that installs solar, GCC will not pay smaller electric bills after the system is installed. Instead the college will continue to pay the same amount it did for energy costs for the next 20 years, regardless of how much energy the solar panels produce, said Harris.
Once the board called Harris and McDonnell back into the meeting, they listed a few changes to the terms of the contract — with Folium.
“Both parties ... agree to terms (of the contract) by Sept. 12,” said Chambers.
Harris asked to have the changes sent directly to Folium and the board agreed to sign a letter of intent.
Stephenson said after the meeting that the project must break ground by the end of this year for the investors to take advantage of tax credits — which will please students and visitors who will be able to park their cars in the shade of the solar panels.