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Sutter Auburn Faith harvests sunshine to save energy

By: Gloria Young Journal Staff Writer
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Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital officially unveiled its new $6 million solar installation Wednesday. The 3,000 solar panels in a two-system configuration have a capacity of 700 kilowatts. The installation will generate more than 1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year and provide a third of the acute-care facility’s energy needs, officials said in a press release. The system, fully operational since September, has been in the pipeline for a couple of years, according to CEO Mitch Hanna. “The conversation started at the tennis court with Don Whitaker at Ceronix. They’ve got panels all over their roof. He said we should be thinking about solar for the hospital.” Once he began looking into it, Hanna discovered that Auburn is an ideal location for solar “because it is above the fog and has a temperate climate.” “And we certainly have the space (at the hospital),” he said. SPG Solar Inc., selected through a competitive bidding process, installed the system and arranged for financing with SunEdison of Maryland. The hospital paid no up-front costs. Instead, it entered into a 25-year Solar Purchase Agreement to buy the energy the system produces to offset demand from the grid. SunEdison, described as the nation’s largest solar energy provider, owns it and will maintain it, Hanna said. Sutter Auburn Faith expects to save $2.5 million over the 25-year life expectancy of the program, according to the press release. In the past, the hospital’s electricity has averaged about $450,000 a year, Sutter spokeswoman Robin Montgomery said. Hanna took a practical approach to the installation. “We have a lot of equipment on our roof,” Hanna said. “To put (the solar installation) on the roof would be very difficult.” Instead, the panels are ground mounted, with some topping elevated structures to provide a protective covering for 150 employee parking spaces. “We have a lot of employees who work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and 3 p.m. is the hottest part of the day when they’re getting to their cars,” Hanna explained. “So, I thought what about putting it into parking areas (similar to the solar installation at) Cal Expo and Arden Fair Mall.” SPG Solar initially had selected another company to take on the financing. But then the stock market collapsed and that organization no longer had investors for the project, Hanna said. That’s when SPG approached Sun Edison. As a nonprofit, the hospital is ineligible for tax credits and depreciation on the system, “so for us to do it this way makes sense. Private investors can get tax credits and depreciation on the system and we purchase the solar from them,” Hanna said. The installation puts Sutter Auburn Faith on the healthcare forefront in alternative energy, with only a few other acute-care facilities in the state using solar power, and those generating only enough electricity to supplement 3 to 10 percent of their electrical needs, the press release said. “We’re the first within Sutter and one of the first within the state, which is really shocking to me,” Hanna said. “Given our green environment, you’d think there would be more.” The Auburn facility’s solar project is a model for other hospitals to follow, according to SPG. “There are many hospitals throughout the nation that could benefit greatly from a solar paneling system such as this,” SPG Solar CEO Thomas Rooney said in the press release. “Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital is leading the way and proving how renewable energy sources can be incorporated into major health care facilities.” After working out the details for the hospital, Hanna was personally so impressed with the system, he decided to put solar in at home and is seeing significant savings from it, he said. Reach Gloria Young at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.