A true story of a sunny future

It was a cold day up on the top floor of the downtown parking garage—Cloudy. Windy. Spits of rain. We huddled under the elevator portico and cracked jokes about the weather.

“It’s getting so these solar dedications are so common around here, they’re boring,” said Reno City Councilmember Dave Aiazzi. “I think that’s a good thing.”

The purpose of our visit to that breezy platform was the installation of 30 kilowatt solar panels to the roof of the downtown parking garage, enough solar power to fuel the needs of the downtown West Street Market. City Council representatives were there to talk to the media, a few staffers, and energy industry types—we all huddled around, backs to the wind, hands stuffed in pockets.

“Should have been installing wind turbines today.” “Oh no, you watch, on that day, it’ll be dead as a doornail.” “This is Reno, after all.”

Solar panels are cool enough. These are just one in a series of five solar projects overall that the city of Reno is building this year through its Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Initiative—a combination of wind, solar and conservation retrofits that will total more than 556,000 kilowatt hours per year, saving $69,000 in energy costs annually.

But what else is cool about this project is the financial aspect of it. Like many improvement projects, this one is funded through a combination of many sources—some Recovery Act money from the federal government, some rebate money from NV Energy. But the city is taking advantage of a new tool for financing renewable energy construction: federally-backed Clean and Renewable Energy Bonds (or CREBs). Like traditional bonds, CREBs is a mechanism for borrowing money up front for a project and paying the loan back over time. But where traditional bonds frequently look to taxpayers or ratepayers to finance the payback, CREBs relies on guaranteed energy savings. Those $69,000 in energy cost savings, then, will be helping to pay off the construction bonds—not taxes, fees or general funds.

CREBs are just one of an alphabet-soupcon of renewable energy financing tools the feds have cooked up to facilitate the speedier adoption of renewable energy technologies by municipalities and local governments. There’s also the EECBG—Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant; and the QECB—Qualified Energy Conservation Bonds; and who could forget the RZED—Recovery Zone Economic Development Bond? Not to mention the FBI, the CIA and the BBC.

And B.B. King. And Doris Day. Dig it.

But seriously, this is good news. Some days, it’s easy to get depressed about the future. A lot of really old thinking seems to be clogging up the airwaves and getting in the way of progress. But I have to say, standing up there with city staffers, council, energy guys and other media heads, with the storm rolling down the ribs of the Sierra, the possibility of living in a sustainable community seemed just a little bit more … well, possible.

And it made me think that while the national news media was giving waaayyy too much attention to the teabaggers and other attention-grabbing obstructionists last summer, some smart and hard-working people in our own downtown were quietly at work paving the way for a better future for our community.

A few posed photographs in front of the solar panels, and we all turned to leave—and then, of course, the sun came out—shining down through shreds in the cloud cover, torching up the aspen on the mountain flanks, and of course, illuminating the shiny new frames of the solar panels. And no, I did not just make that up.