Rooftop solar panels uncertain at Alameda Point

More than 24 new residential and commercial buildings are proposed for construction at the 68-acre Site A project at Alameda Point, which was approved unanimously by the Planning Board on Monday, May 11. All the buildings will be solar ready. But according to Joe Ernst, the project leader for Alameda Point Partners, there is no guarantee there will ever be any solar panels on the rooftops.

Site A aerial view looking northeast

Ernst blames the currently underfunded rebate incentive system and a lack of financing vehicles with tax incentives, which can leave developers having to absorb the full cost of the photovoltaic solar panels. He said it could take anywhere from seven to 10 years to offset the cost of the solar panels through power savings if his company had to fund them out of pocket.

The solar panel rebate programs offered by the State of California and Alameda Municipal Power lag far behind the ambitious goals recently launched by Governor Jerry Brown. The governor’s executive order on greenhouse gas reduction, issued on April 29, 2015, followed through on goals that he outlined a few months earlier in his inaugural address.

“I envision a wide range of initiatives: more distributed power, expanded rooftop solar, micro-grids, an energy imbalance market, battery storage, the full integration of information technology and electrical distribution and millions of electric and low-carbon vehicles,” said Governor Brown in his speech.

But at Alameda Point, the inconsistency between the governor’s goals and the programs to implement them stands in stark contrast. The proposed 68-acre Site A project next to the Seaplane Lagoon is left wanting for solar panels. But a few feet away at Hangar 41, Wrightspeed is preparing to manufacture fuel-efficient electric powertrains for trucks with the aid of $5.8 million in grant funding from the California Energy Commission.

Rooftop solar panelsIn order to limit the onsite production of power, which cuts into a power company’s bottom line, rate structures for buying and selling power from rooftop solar producers can be skewed in favor of power companies. This, in turn, can effect decisions on investing in rooftop solar. One of the hurdles is right here in Alameda.

Alameda’s Public Utilities Board recently held a workshop on rate structure alternatives known as Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Feed In Tariff (FIT) but held off on making any decision. Rooftop solar proponents favor an expansion of NEM.

A nonprofit agency in Palo Alto overcame obstacles to installing rooftop solar with a combination of independent financing and various incentives. In early 2014, the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center completed a rooftop solar project on their campus that was financed through a power purchase agreement and took advantage of available incentives. It required no capital costs to the center.

The company that packaged the deal, THiNKnrg, owns the solar panels. It will deliver electricity at 4 cents a kilowatt, half the current energy rate, saving the center an estimated $1.5 million over the 20-year contract. The deal covers 12 buildings with 1,840 solar panels, which will generate .5 megawatt of power. It is Palo Alto’s second largest rooftop solar system.

The rooftops at Alameda’s Site A project will be designed to accept the weight of solar panels. Conduits, pathways, switchgear and metering will be designed into the buildings. Although this new construction project is a prime candidate to turn on the lights with solar on the first day, it’s unlikely without the support of state incentives and Alameda Municipal Power.

Published in the Alameda Sun, May 14, 2015.

Location of proposed Site A development project at Alameda Point, looking west from Main Street.
Location of proposed Site A development project at Alameda Point, looking west from Main Street.

Site A aerial view looking west

Natel Energy gearing up to produce hydropower turbines at Alameda Point

An old aircraft hangar at Alameda Point will become the first production facility in the world for an innovative hydropower turbine. After two years of testing and design work, Natel Energy began outfitting the hangar this summer, which is just a few hundred yards from their headquarters in the former Control Tower for the Navy airfield. “By 2016 we expect to be producing 75 units a year,” said Chief Executive Officer Gia Schneider, “and reach 200 units a year by 2017.”

HydroEngine drive system called a cassette.  Blades connected to conveyor belts are moved by water guided by fins called guidevanes (not shown).  As water contacts first set of blades, the belt is moved upward, while exiting water drives the  rear set of blades downward.  Natel Energy photo.  Used by permission.
HydroEngine drive system called a cassette. Blades connected to conveyor belts are moved by water guided by fins called guidevanes (not shown). As water contacts first set of blades, the belt is moved upward, while exiting water drives the rear set of blades downward. Natel Energy photo. Used by permission.

Formed by alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Natel Energy set out to create a utility-scale hydropower system without the costs and environmental consequences of hydroelectric dams.

Natel Energy touts their turbine system, trademarked EcoSmartHydro Power, as an environmentally superior method of watershed development because it does not require flooding an entire ecosystem to drive an electric hydropower generator at a dam.

“Whereas conventional hydropower is characterized by a centralized approach to project planning and large environmental footprint, EcoSmartHydro™ Power is distributed, low-impact, yet still successful at the utility scale,” proclaims the company’s website. “Conventional hydropower plants are designed solely to maximize power output. EcoSmartHydro™ Power plants are designed to maximize power output while maintaining the health of watershed ecosystems.”

When installed in streams and small rivers, the system allows for young fish to travel downstream and through the system unharmed. Traditional fish ladders can be installed for spawning fish travelling upstream.

The heart of the system, called a cassette, is about the size of a king size bed. It consists of a conveyor belt of blades that are moved as water flows through. A generator connected to one or both of the conveyor shafts generates electricity.

The system can be installed virtually anywhere there is flowing water, such as irrigation canals, water supply channels, thermal power plant water outfalls, and existing non-hydroelectric dams. The Natel Energy system is able to generate electricity with relatively small drops in elevation because it’s based solely on water flow, not water pressure.

Water canal shown as an example of existing water flow where Natel Energy hydropower system can be installed.  Natel Energy photo.  Used by persmission.
Water canal shown as an example of existing water flow where Natel Energy hydropower system can be installed. Natel Energy photo. Used by persmission.

In December 2013, Natel Energy got a boost from the U.S. Department of Energy with a $2 million tax credit under the Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit program. The money for product development and manufacturing, however, is coming solely from investors. “We don’t get any benefit from the tax program until we start selling our product,” said Schneider.

“The company currently has 14 employees, and we will be adding 80 to 90 people as production grows at Alameda Point, with up to 35 of those in manufacturing,” said Schneider. “Our goal is to give special attention to hiring and training of veterans and to make use of Department of Energy vocational training programs.”

Employees assembling gearbox at Alameda Point hangar.  Natel Energy photo.  Used by permission.
Employees assembling gearbox at Alameda Point hangar. Natel Energy photo. Used by permission.

All of the parts and components of the turbine are manufactured in the United States. Schneider said that working with parts suppliers in the U.S. during the product-development phase made the process logistically less stressful and time-consuming. For some of their parts, the company would not have gained any cost advantage by going outside the U.S., according to Schneider. She said that once production levels reach the point where new production facilities are being added elsewhere in the U.S. or the world, some parts may be sourced from outside the country.

Assembling cassette drive belt.  Belt connectors underwent testing and re-working at Alameda Point.  Final product surpassed 60 million cycles without failure.  Natel Energy photo.  Used by permission.
Assembling cassette drive belt. Belt connectors underwent testing and re-working at Alameda Point. Final product surpassed 60 million cycles without failure. Natel Energy photo. Used by permission.

Videos made by Natel Energy this year offer a look into the elaborate parts testing program the company has been running at their Alameda Point headquarters, as well as a look into the process of setting up their production facility. An animated video shows how their system works in the field.

Videos by Natel Energy on company video site

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Natel Energy News Page

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