As local governments build new facilities while emphasizing environmental consciousness, you might wonder: Where are all the solar panels? The answer, according to city and county officials: They’re not always feasible or cost-effective.
Both the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station and Los Angeles County Fire Station 104, also in Santa Clarita, opened in the last two years, and neither facility utilizes solar energy. According to city and county officials, cost vs. benefit analyses, along with other considerations, didn’t call for the installation of solar panels.
Fire Station 104 in the 26900 block of Golden Valley Road opened in June 2020, and the sheriff’s station in the 26200 block of Golden Valley Road opened in June 2021. Whereas Fire Station 104 was a county project, the sheriff’s station was a joint project of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Los Angeles County and the city of Santa Clarita.
“The city of Santa Clarita strives to include environmentally friendly amenities when feasible and cost-appropriate,” said City Manager Ken Striplin. “Although solar panels were not part of the original construction, the infrastructure to add them in the future was included. This infrastructure includes underground conduits, pull boxes and a disconnect in the electrical room.”
The city manager said there were no current plans to add solar at this time.
However, Striplin added, environmentally responsible elements have been incorporated into the design for the long-term use of the site. Both the station and maintenance buildings, he said, have light-colored roofing materials that reflect light to keep the roof cool, providing energy savings, helping to prolong the life of the air conditioning system and stabilizing temperatures in unconditioned spaces.
Striplin also said natural light is utilized throughout the buildings, which helps make the space feel more comfortable, reducing artificial lighting requirements and saving energy. And indoor and outdoor lighting, he continued, is equipped with sensors to increase energy efficiency.
“We couldn’t include everything,” said Assistant City Manager Shannon Pickett. “And so, we included what we could within the budget we got.”
According to Carrie Lujan, spokeswoman for the city of Santa Clarita, the City Council generally gives policy direction on LEED certification for new projects, but not on specific details of the project. LEED is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system that provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings.
“For the sheriff’s station project,” Lujan continued, “the council gave direction to achieve LEED. Solar panels were not needed to reach this designation. In addition, it would be cost-prohibitive to include them as part of the project. The cost of the solar panels was estimated during design to be approximately $360,000, but during construction, staff was advised by our consultant that the actual cost would have been significantly higher.”
The decision to leave solar panels off the plans for Fire Station 104 was strictly a cost vs. benefit decision, according to Nick Berkuta, an acting assistant chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
“Although the fire station only opened a little over a year ago,” Berkuta told The Signal, “the designs are from seven to eight years ago.”
And while he said there were no building codes at the time that required solar panels to be included in the plans, he believes that, going forward, more and more fire stations will be outfitted with them.
“I know the Board of Supervisors are looking at ways to be net zero like a lot of other businesses, and with that will inevitably come trends toward putting solar on businesses such as fire stations,” Berkuta added. “Looking just at the general trends, society and everything else, as long as we are able to secure adequate funding — whether it’s grant funding or funding through the county itself — I anticipate the next fire stations that are built will include some sort of solar, for sure.”
As it stands, Los Angeles County has five new stations in the works in the coming years for Santa Clarita. According to documents from the county Fire Department, these stations include Nos. 175, 179, 133, 176 and 177. A county developer fire station plan update from September 2021 indicates plans for Station 179 to be located in the Lyons Ranch area north of Towsley Canyon, Station 133 in an area near Eternal Valley Memorial Park, and stations 175, 176 and 177 in the FivePoint Valencia development near Interstate 5 and State Route 126.
And while Berkuta believes these stations will include solar, he said plans have not been drawn up yet. He also said that the state energy code, which is updated every three years, also remains a factor.
In August 2021, the California Energy Commission adopted the 2022 Building Energy Efficient Standards (Energy Code), which, according to a press release on the commission’s website, is intended to improve efficiency and reduce emissions from homes and businesses.
Amber Pasricha Beck, a spokeswoman for the commission, said the 2022 Energy Code’s solar PV requirements apply to occupancies such as schools, offices, warehouses, restaurants, theaters, hotels, grocery stores and multifamily high-rises, among others.
“Eighty percent of the building needs to be some combination of these occupancies for solar requirements to apply,” Beck told The Signal. “We would not expect a fire station to be comprised of 80% of these occupancies given the areas needed for dorm areas, physical training/exercise areas, vehicle maintenance areas, etc. However, depending on how it is designed, the space could meet the requirements.”
Dorm areas, by the way, are considered as “intended for a transient occupancy,” she said.
Beck added that a police station may be more likely to be comprised of sufficient office space to meet the 80% threshold. However, she continued, spaces that fall into certain occupancy categories, such as jails, detention areas, correctional areas, medical areas, detox facilities, hospitals and psychiatric hospitals, would not be considered any of the noted occupancies.
So, according to Beck, even if the SCV Sheriff’s Station and Fire Station 104 were being designed today, they wouldn’t necessarily be required to have solar.
“The answer isn’t a yes or a no,” she said when asked if they would, in fact, be required to do so, “but depends on how the buildings are occupied/classified.”