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Study: $40M to install solar-plus-storage systems at 12 SF sites for seismic resiliency

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The Moscone Recreational Center located near the San Francisco Public Library Marina Branch is one of the sites selected for the solar-plus-storage system. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Equipping multiple community buildings at 12 sites with solar-plus-storage systems to provide power if a major earthquake knocks San Francisco off the grid would cost $40 million, a new city study shows.

Whether The City will move forward with the plan is unclear.

The sites selected are in each of the 11 districts of the Board of Supervisors, with an additional one in District 10, and include libraries, schools, churches, police stations and recreation centers.

Among them is the Marina Branch Library and the adjacent Marina Middle School and Moscone Recreation Center. There is also Glide Memorial Church and the nearby Tenderloin Police Station. Other sites include the North Beach Branch Library and the Francisco Middle School.

Jessie Denver, energy program manager with the Department of the Environment, which is leading the effort in partnership with San Francisco-based energy consultant Arup, told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday that the system sizes are scoped to provide “critical loads” for about three to five days, but not the electrical needs of the entire buildings.

The power would provide electricity for things like refrigeration of medical supplies or food, lighting at a gymnasium (which could be used for temporary shelter) and computers “so that people can check in with their friends and families on Facebook and let them that they are OK,” Denver said.

Solar-plus-storage refers to photovoltaic systems with the addition of batteries to store the energy. The evolving technology holds much promise, with the cost of batteries decreasing and storage capabilities improving. The three-year study was funded through a $1.3 million U.S. Department of Energy grant plus matching city funds of about $300,000.

San Francisco currently does not have any solar-plus-storage systems in place, which are photovoltaic solar energy panels plus battery capacity for storage.

“Solar plus deployment is gaining traction,” Denver said. “There is not widespread deployment of solar plus storage at this time.”

The City currently would use diesel generators to power buildings should San Francisco get bumped off the grid. Following a 7.9-magnitude earthquake, it would take PG&E more than a week to completely restore power, according to a 2014 city study.

But the next steps for the effort got a little bit murky when Denver presented the results to the Capital Planning Committee earlier this month.

“We found out, yes, solar plus energy storage at these facilities is feasible. So now we need to figure how do we actually pay for the projects and get them built,” Denver told the committee.

The cost estimate is $40 million, while partnering with the private sector could decrease the costs to $26 million with available federal grants.

But City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who chairs the committee, expressed concerns over the cost and whether city departments’ infrastructure divisions were aware of the effort.

Those concerns have put the brakes on the department’s plan to issue a request for information to solicit feedback from those in the solar-plus-storage industry as well as develop a draft request for proposals.

Peter Gallotta, Department of the Environment spokesperson, told the Examiner on Friday that “we are still looking forward to working collaboratively with our fellow city agencies to think about how implementation of these projects might fit into The City’s bigger picture around emergency response, resiliency and also bringing more renewables onto our grid.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Emergency Management, which oversees The City’s responses to natural disasters and other emergencies, said the agency looks forward to “evaluating” the study’s results.

“Solar storage is project that has the potential to help San Francisco become a more resilient city,” DEM spokesperson Francis Zamora told the Examiner.

Brian Strong, San Francisco’s Chief Resilience Officer and also the director of the Capital Planning Committee, told the Examiner on Friday that solar plus storage brings the benefit of “a cleaner way” to provide electricity than The City’s reliance on diesel generators.

Another benefit is reliability and increased capacity. Generators will operate between 72 hours and 96 hours before needing refueling and while there plans in place to get more fuel, “you just don’t know how that’s going to work out,” Strong said.

The discussion comes as Mexico City’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 19 — that claimed more than 300 lives — is a painful reminder of the damage that could occur in San Francisco when the next big earthquake hits and the importance of being resilient.

The City’s own 2014 Hazard Mitigation Plan calls on San Francisco to develop strategies to reduce risks to natural and human-caused hazards, including addressing disruption of energy supplies in the event of emergency through the deployment off solar energy storage.

The Department of the Environment declined to provide greater details of the study, citing the duration of the grant study, which officially concludes in December.

“As we’ve learned from Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and what we are seeing in Mexico City today, in the event of a disaster first responders are often the community members themselves,” DOE spokesperson Gallotta said. “Additionally, neighborhood resources like community centers and schools often become a place of operation for emergency response. It’s critical to have backup power at these sites in the event of the next large-scale grid outage.”

He added, “On-site solar production paired with battery energy storage can not only meet daily power needs but make our neighborhoods more prepared and resilient over an extended period in the event of an emergency.”

The grant study has also resulted in an “online tool” at www.SolarResilient.org that can help others plan solar-plus-storage systems.

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