Del Mar City Hall hopes to go solar


As construction of Del Mar’s sprawling new civic center on Camino Del Mar bulldozes ahead throughout the rest of this year, the roof of the future city hall will bear perhaps the project’s crowning achievement: an array of solar panels connected to an innovative battery storage system that will together make the civic center one of the most energy-efficient endeavors anywhere in the region.

The two-part Tesla photovoltaic network will consist of 174 photovoltaic panels arrayed on the southwest-facing roof, linked up to a battery “Powerwall” in the garage comprised essentially of an upgraded version of Tesla’s electric car battery stacked to the size of an upright freezer.

During most of each day, those panels will power city hall and then some, with the surplus funneling into the battery system, said Donald Mosier, former city councilman and the city’s facilitator for its Climate Action Plan. Roughly half of the battery’s 100-kilowatt capacity will go toward cutting city hall’s energy consumption in the late afternoon, Mosier said, when the sun dips and energy prices start their daily climb. The other half should be enough to power evening activities for five hours.

“That system, when the sun is shining, will supply 90 percent of the energy requirements,” Mosier said. “I would have loved to have gotten to net zero, but we didn’t have enough room for PV panels on the roof, and we didn’t want to put them out where they were visible to the public. Ninety percent is pretty good; it’s not 100 percent but it’s close.”

Had Del Mar waited a few years, solar would have cost less and the return on investment would have come sooner, Mosier said, but the city was determined to spark a broader transition to cleaner, greener energy.

“This will be one of the most energy-efficient buildings in San Diego County. We’re going to invite property owners with adequate roof space to come and see this system. We hope to incentivize more investment in similar systems,” Mosier said. “Until we have a few cities out there doing the demonstration projects, you’ve got to incentivize the battery manufacturers and the customers to start using these things.”

The solar endeavor—and the civic center overall—marks the first major step toward implementing the landmark vision laid out in the Climate Action Plan city leaders enacted last year, which calls for Del Mar to run exclusively on renewable energy by 2035.

All told, the solar component is expected to cost nearly $493,000. The city is awaiting word on a $393,000 grant from the California Energy Commission, with the remainder to be covered by an in-kind match.

The California Energy Commission is making $10.2 million available this summer through its one-time Local Government Challenge, of which $3 million has been designated for cities with populations under 150,000. The Commission was scheduled to announce the winning projects on April 11, but after extending the deadline to allow for more applications, results are not expected until May or June. Even if Del Mar does not win the grant, a contingency fund set aside in the civic center’s $17.8 million budget might have enough left over to pay for the solar project, Mosier said.

The long-planned project will transform the 1.5 acres at 1050 Camino Del Mar into nearly 30,000 square feet of cutting-edge civic space, including a nearly 9,000-square-foot city hall flanked by a 3,000-square-foot town hall and public plaza spanning some 15,000 square feet.

Planning director Kathleen Garcia’s March 20 update to the city council explained that two-thirds of the concrete slabs for the underground parking garage have been poured. The remaining concrete will pour in April, she said, with scaffolding expected to go up “in the coming days and weeks.”

“We were worried that the rains may have set us behind schedule; and that may turn out to be a factor,” Mayor Terry Sinnott said in an email. “But so far both our schedule and budgets are looking good.”

If construction does stay on schedule, the solar-enabled roof will go up in February 2018 or March 2018, giving the city two months to test and tweak the system ahead of the civic center’s dedication in May 2018.

Over its first year, the photovoltaic system will serve as a demonstration project meant to encourage property owners and other governments to try their hand at solar, said Assistant City Manager Kristen Crane, who is overseeing the civic center construction.Energy will be metered in real time in the lobby of city hall and broadcast on the city’s website as part of a collaboration with the Center for Sustainable Energy, a San Diego-based nonprofit.

Several cities in the region have put solar arrays into place, including Carlsbad, National City, Chula Vista and San Diego. But only Escondido has taken that a step further and added energy storage systems, according to SANDAG. Escondido runs seven storage sites in the city.

Because Del Mar’s new city hall will be so much more energy efficient than the facility that had operated out of a converted schoolhouse for more than 40 years, city leaders remain unclear on how quickly the energy savings will cover the expense of the system. But with roughly $200,000 in hardware alone, the break-even point is likely several years away, Mosier said.

A crucial unknown is how well the photovoltaic system will perform so close to the beach, enshrouded as it so often is by clouds and coastal fog.

“It’s not like Poway, out in the desert, where the sun shines almost every day and all day long,” Mosier said. “We have our Mays and Junes when the sun may only be out for three or four hours.”