Green Projects Help Transit Be More Sustainable Off the Road

Posted on March 15, 2012 by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

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Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)
Location: San Jose, Calif. • Project: Solar panels

In partnership with SunPower Corp., Joint Venture Silicon Valley and Wells Fargo, the VTA installed solar parking canopy systems, totaling 2.1 megawatts, at its three bus maintenance divisions - Chaboya, Cerone and North.

"Joint Venture Silicon Valley worked with Santa Clara County to take the lead on a renewable energy request for proposal (RFP) and a number of public agencies joined in as part of that effort," says VTA's Environmental Program Manager Tom Fitzwater. "The whole idea was to leverage an aggregate solar project that would encourage more solar companies to compete and give us some kind of economy of scale and better pricing, because they'd be competing for a number of projects in a number of jurisdictions."

VTA financed the system through a power purchase agreement with SunPower. Under the terms of the agreement, Wells Fargo owns the systems that SunPower designed and built. The company will also operate and maintain the solar panel array. The transit operation is hosting the systems and buying the electricity at prices that are competitive with retail rates, protected from rising electricity prices. VTA also owns the renewable energy credits and environmental benefits associated with the system.

The power derived from these solar panel systems will offset the electricity demand for the three bus maintenance divisions. The clean electricity generated by these systems will also offset more than 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, which is equivalent to removing more than 9,000 cars from California's roads or planting 10,000 acres of trees over the next 20 years.

"We are basically generating power all day long and essentially selling it back to Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) during the day, when usage is highest," says Fitzwater. "Our bus division's highest usage is in the middle of the night, when we're doing maintenance as well as fueling and cleaning the vehicles, and that's when rates are very low. So, the idea is that it is sort of cost neutral."

Through the energy agreement, VTA expects to save approximately $600,000 a year.

The solar panel project is part of VTA's overall sustainability program, which launched in July 2007. Other environmentally-friendly projects the agency has taken on include replacing more than 2,000 interior lighting systems with LED, recycling programs for glass and other materials, and switching from a timer-based to a weather-based irrigation system that only waters plants when it is hot or the ground is dry.

"What helped us early on is that we had audits done of all of our facilities by the Santa Clara Water District and PG&E, who then provided us with no-cost improvements, low-cost improvements and higher-cost improvements," says Fitzwater. "We jumped on all the ones that were no-cost, then the low-cost, and now, we're inching into the higher-cost items. All told, we project that we're saving about $1 million a year from our [green] efforts."

Sun Tran/Sun Van
Location: Tucson, Ariz. • Project: LEED bus facility

In January, Sun Tran celebrated the opening of its Northwest Bus Facility, which was built in three phases. All the buildings in Phase II, including the operations and maintenance buildings, were completed in 2009 and attained LEED Gold certification.

"It's good for our employees, because it's a healthier, more pleasant place to work," says Sun Tran/Sun Van GM Kate Riley. "Further, it supports the City of Tucson's goals for sustainability. In 2006, Tucson Mayor and Council adopted LEED Silver standards for all new City-owned buildings. Sustainability becomes a lifestyle as the LEED buildings are built around energy conservation and recycling."

The operations and maintenance buildings constructed during Phase II include approximately 62,000 square feet of space, 17 bus bays, and a driver dispatch center. LEED-related features include natural lighting, furnishing and flooring with low-VOC emissions for improved air quality, and post-industrial recycled content for building materials. It also includes 68 kilowatts of solar-power generation, reclaimed water for irrigation and toilets, and roofing materials designed to help reduce interior and exterior temperatures and energy costs.

Riley explains that the LEED process sets goals to achieve the highest level of success. The atmosphere, she explains, creates some competition with the partners to come up with new ways or strategies to achieve a higher level, which in turn leads to a better working environment.

"Because of this competitive atmosphere, Sun Tran's build out of Phase II of the facility earned LEED-Gold status, when the second phase of the project was originally created to achieve LEED Silver certification," she says.

Phase III of the $56 million project includes a 27,000-square-foot administrative building, as well as an expanded maintenance building that added 13 more bus bays, a body shop and an additional wash bay is also seeking LEED Gold certification. During the peak month of construction on the entire 25-acre facility, 186 full-time local jobs were created, according to the agency.

Riley explains that the project is just one facet of the agency's commitment to being environmentally friendly.

"It's a good way for us to improve the Tucson region's sustainability," she says. "Green building is just one of the many ways Sun Tran supports overall sustainability — we go beyond what people see on the street every day, which is operating a fleet that uses clean fuels and technology such as compressed natural gas, biodiesel and hybrid [vehicles]."

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