By Glenna Wiseman
Vice President, Marketing, Helio Energy Solutions

Solar panels are glossy, slick, technical equipment not normally associated with heartfelt emotions.  Even the noble financial and environmental benefits rightfully proclaimed at solar power system unveiling ceremonies don’t engender moist eyes.  Yet today the activation of a solar electric system brought about sentiments not usually ascribed to the celebration of clean energy generation.

Today the Ronald McDonald House Charities of San Diego brought together a group of supporters and solar industry partners to celebrate their new solar power system.  Theirs is the first solar panel system for the Ronald McDonald House organization in California.  All the truly wonderful benefits were relayed to the group assembled.  And it was the impassioned statements of a mom that brought the group (or at least many of us) to tears.

With 11 month old son Colby close by, Kim described the journey of her family.  Colby was born with a rare heart condition.  During the first months of his treatment she and her husband slept in their car during breaks from the hospital, not realizing there was any assistance. Kim Abramson spoke on behalf of the 20,000 families of sick children who are helped at the new facility for Ronald McDonald House in San Diego.  The window she opened into the world of the families who are helped there inspired all of us in attendance.

“People tell you what an adventure it will be,” said Kim of parenthood.  “No one prepares you for the roller coaster we’ve been on.”

During the four months they stayed at the House, she learned “every volunteer and House staff member is so genuine, so kind. They don’t realize the difference they are making.”

You can see the “difference they are making” shining in the eyes of the staff members at the Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Bill Lennartz, President and CEO of the House, welcomed all to the event with genuine enthusiasm.  “I’m so delighted to see all of you at this important milestone for our House and for the community – the beginning of solar electric power for our beautiful new House and for our families” he said.  “We are the first Ronald McDonald House in California to go solar and officially today, our House is running on solar electric power.”

His big smile was matched only by the sun itself.  After burning away early morning coastal fog, the sun appeared.  As if on cue, it made a dramatic entrance in time to light up all 518 solar panels on the roof.

In addition to the solar power system milestone, the new House facility is celebrating its one year anniversary. The organization itself is 30 years old in the San Diego area.  With its new “green” House the capacity of the charity has gone from 12 bedrooms serving 3600 families annually to 47 guest rooms capable of providing respite to 20,000 families.

Built atop a parking structure that serves the world famous Children’s Hospital of San Diego, the building is sustainably constructed.  The solar installation is part of the Ronald McDonald House of San Diego’s pursuit of U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The House was built according to strict green building standards, using a combination of high-efficiency mechanical systems and envelope and lighting design; it uses 17.5 percent less energy than a typical building in California. Materials used to create the building contain significant amounts of recycled content, and the building provides recycling collection stations to all house guests and employees.

Today’s event provided a wonderful backdrop for the California Center for Sustainable Design to present the McDonald House their “Solar Partners Recognition Award” presented by Katrina Perez, Non-Residential Program Manager.

Lending their support not only to the day’s events but to the project itself were Dr. Georg  Schlueter, a renewable energy expert who initiated and guided the solar power project, Jim Coleman of PV Powered, the solar inverter equipment company and Robert Lombardi, President of 4G Development, the buidling’s construction firm.

Steve LoRusso, Vice President of Commercial Sales for Helio Energy Solutions, addressed some of the issues non-profit organizations normally have to overcome to empower their properties with solar panel systems.

“The challenge was to deliver a financial model that could meet their green building goal, improve their LEED certification and reduce their operating expense,” said LoRusso.  “The challenges were great, but the goal was even greater.  As a non-profit they had no appetite for tax credits and depreciation benefits that typically drive solar investments.  With the help of our sister company, Helio Micro Utility, we structured a financial model to start saving right away; those savings that are better spent on the needs of families that Ronald McDonald House was built to serve; savings that will continue to benefit the families in residence for the next 40-50 years.  A model for sustainable building others in the community of San Diego should emulate.”

Helio Energy Solutions, who engineered and constructed the project, Canadian Solar and PV Powered all reduced service or product costs to bring the cost of the Ronald McDonald House project down.

Managing cash flow was a huge issue for an organization that depends on donations.  “If Ronald McDonald House were to buy this solar power system outright at the time they entered into the agreement with Helio Energy Solutions they would have paid about $600K with about a $100K non-profit rebate,” explained LoRusso who has been in the solar industry since its beginning.   “They would have needed to come up with the $600k up front and collect back the rebate over 5 years.  As a non-profit, they had no way to monetize the tax credit or MACRS depreciation.”

“Helio Energy Solutions working with Helio Micro Utility created this unusually small power purchase agreement (PPA) because, after all it was for Ronald McDonald House,” explained LoRusso. “They save a on the cost per kWh thru the five year short term of the PPA, with the real savings happens starting in year 6 when they realize 100% of the solar benefit.”

Number crunching of another sort, the kind of energy figures the solar industry reviews to measure our growth, was discussed at the event by Mike Miskovsky, General Manager of the U.S. Division of Canadian Solar.

“We are one of the largest solar companies in the world with offices around the globe producing solar products for projects that span from this McDonald House to a 15 megawatt solar farm in Mahora, Spain,” opened Miskovsky.

In closing, he talked of the kind of inspirational numbers represented by the row of young children, who were attending House students.  These kinds of numbers are “the reasons that inspire us,” he said.  “Nonprofits around the world are reaping the benefits of solar electric system installations – from vast energy and cost savings to sweeping environmental benefits. Ronald McDonald House of San Diego is a shining example of an institution utilizing solar energy which, in turn, helps others.”

Those others and their stories of desperate journeys to heal ill children and the angels who help along the way…well, they’ll bring you to tears.