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SF to install rooftop solar array on War Memorial Opera House

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Rooftop repairs to the War Memorial Opera House to prepare for the solar panel installation are set to start July 18. The actual installation will take place in February and March 2018. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco has reached an agreement to install a $1.5 million rooftop solar panel system on the War Memorial Opera House in the Civic Center area across from City Hall.

The years-in-the-making project builds on The City’s ongoing efforts to expand photovoltaic systems and increase its clean energy portfolio.

The planned 92 kilowatt solar electric system for the War Memorial’s rooftop is the third solar electric project in the Civic Center Sustainable Utilities District, an area designated as such in 2008 by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, joining the two other projects at Davies Symphony Hall and City Hall.

The photovoltaic system will comprise 299 solar panels, about 3.5 feet by 5 feet.

The Civic Center area is conducive for solar arrays for several factors.

“It’s relatively good weather for San Francisco and we have some big flat roofs here,” Barbara Hale, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s assistant general manager for power, told the San Francisco Examiner on Thursday. “That combination makes it a good area for us.”

She added that since the area is a designated historic district there won’t be high rises built nearby that would block the panels from the sun.

The War Memorial Board of Trustees approved the 20-year agreement with the SFPUC to build and operate the system on June 8, and the SFPUC approved the deal on Tuesday. The project costs $1.5 million, with a fraction of the funding for roof repairs, which is already budgeted for by the SFPUC, which will pay for the project.

The War Memorial opened in 1932 and is home to the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet.

“All of the electricity produced by the PV system would be consumed by the Opera House and would not result in net exports to the existing electrical grid (PG&E),” reads a May 27 memo from an SFPUC official.

Hale said the solar array will supply about 5 percent of the War Memorial’s energy needs. The remainder of the power comes from SFPUC’s hydroelectric energy produced from the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir.

“We are always looking for cost-effective ways to diversify our supply both in technology type and location,” Hale said.

Rooftop repairs are slated to begin July 18 and continue to Aug. 6 to prepare for the solar installation, which will take place in February and March 2018 when performances and rehearsals are on hiatus. It will take about 40 days to install the solar panels.

The Davies Symphony Hall rooftop solar array installed in March 2014 provides about 15 percent of Davies’ electricity needs by producing 248,200 kilowatt hours of electricity, according to the 2015 Civic Center Sustainable Utilities District Plan. The plan noted that’s the equivalent of powering 60 San Francisco homes annually and removing about 50 tons of carbon dioxide from the environment.

There were 230 solar panels installed in January 2015 on the South Light Court side of City Hall, creating a 80 kilowatt system that “further improves the regal structure’s low greenhouse gas emission profile,” the 2015 plan said.

The SFPUC oversees 19 municipal solar energy facilities that can generate up to 7.9 megawatts of energy.
“That’s a lot of solar investment by The City. We are very proud of that. With CleanPowerSF we will be able to do more,” Hale said, referring to the The City’s community choice aggregation, which launched last year.

The Civic Center solar projects were initially on track in 2009 to go out to bid for private contractors, but labor leaders fought to ensure the work went to union employees in the construction and electrical trades, those represented by Laborers Local 261 and IBEW Local 6, respectively. The War Memorial project will use SFPUC employees represented by those unions and allow for apprenticeships.

“It’s taken us a long time to get to this point. I feel pretty comfortable with the workforce,” SFPUC Commissioner Vince Courtney Jr., who is also the political director for Local 261, said Tuesday before voting on the deal. “I am confident that a composite crew in the public sector is going to be able to deliver these services on budget and on time.”

While putting the projects out to bid could lower costs, Hale said there are advantages in having more control over the quality of the work. “We did that at the beginning before staff was experienced,” Hale said. “This is becoming routine city business now.”

Courtney told the Examiner in an email on Thursday that “our concern primarily has been ensuring that members of the community workforce gain training and expertise in new green industries and techniques.”

Clean energy supporters say the SFPUC needs to more aggressively fund similar projects.

“Individual solar installations like this are helpful progress, but the climate crisis is now so imminent and serious that we can no longer rely on slowly building one small project at a time,” said Eric Brooks, a renewable energy advocate.

Brooks said The City needs to work with other Bay Area counties to create a regional renewable energy network that replaces all fossil-fuel electricity within the next decade.

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