In early December 2009, USA Properties began a significant renovation of the Vintage Oaks Senior Apartment Complex in Citrus Heights, California, to improve energy efficiency, affordability, and livability.
As part of a Low Income Housing Tax Credit financing effort, the project included solarization, installation of energy efficient water heaters, fluorescent lighting, ceiling fans, and EnergyStar appliances, as well as landscaping and general repairs. By far the largest improvement was the installation of a 475-kilowatt roof-mounted photovoltaic panel system throughout the complex.
“We had done a few other projects with solar installations,” said USA Properties Project Manager Santiago del Rio, “but not to this scale.” The solar panels provide approximately 83% of the energy required for each rental unit as well as 90% of the energy required for the common areas, including the clubhouse.
But the real innovation at Vintage Oaks is the way power is distributed and metered throughout the complex.
The configuration, a first for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), and one of the first in the nation, is called “virtual net metering.” It enables energy from the entire system to be equally distributed to the tenants and common areas and has resulted in an 86% reduction in energy demand.
According to Wade Hughes, manager of SMUD’s SolarSmart program, virtual net metering takes advantage of great economies of scale. Under a traditional net metering system, each unit would require its own solar panel and its own inverter, as well as an additional meter. Such a configuration would not have been possible at Vintage Oaks becasue “there’s not enough space on the side of the building,” said Hughes.
Instead, virtual net metering allows for on-site solar generation without requiring the generator to be physically connected to each billing meter.
Without such a configuration, SMUD could not deliver the benefits of solar energy to a population that has been largely underserved—in this case, low- and very low-income
Hughes said the average tenant’s electric bill has been reduced from $26 to just $7 dollars a month.
Hughes believes the success of Vintage Oaks can have wider implications, such as stimulating the local photovoltaic market and helping California meet its solar energy goals. “We were able to prove it was possible to virtually net meter in this way,” he said. “We really had no previous experience doing this… and, sure enough, we were able to prove it was viable.”
Despite SMUD’s accomplishments, Hughes is quick to praise USA Properties, saying their ability to fund the project is a huge accomplishment.
USA Properties created a complex funding structure and, remarkably, raised over $25 million in the middle of a recession. The developer’s biggest challenge was getting investors and lenders to see the benefits of the project. “We fed them a lot of information,” said del Rio, “educating them on how the system was going to work and what the benefits of the system would be.”
The city of Citrus Heights played a role as well, helping to develop a financing strategy and bringing together key stakeholders.
Associate Planner Casey Kempenaar said, “There was very open communication between the property owner, SMUD and the city and there weren’t any issues to speak of.”
Ultimately, the cooperation paid off. “It took a lot of negotiating,” said del Rio, “a lot of working with the utility company and investors and lenders to make this project work. Because nobody had ever done this before. “In the end, the pieces fell together.”
Posted on: September 8th, 2011