GUSTINE - The city will spend money in anticipation of saving even more money on energy expenses over the next 30 years.

City Council members recently approved a contract with ENGIE Services for an energy project which will include the installation of solar panels at several city facilities, a variety of lighting upgrades and other improvements aimed at energy efficiency.

The $3.2 million project also includes one component that will not produce energy savings but was widely seen by the council as a valuable community feature - the addition of solar-powered pathway lights to a walking trail which will encircle Schmidt Park.

That $570,000 amenity was the most widely debated element of the overall project, drawing extensive discussion before the council agreed to include the path lighting in the project.

A low-interest, $2.2 million loan from the California Energy Commission will fund the majority of the project. The city will borrow from sewer reserve funds that are currently in an investment fund to come up with the remaining $928,000 needed to move forward with the project.

Overall, the improvements are projected to produce a net

savings of at least $4.2 million over the next 30 years - and more if a proposed Pacific Gas & Electric Co. rate request is approved, the council was told by ENGIE representatives. The lower-end projected savings are based on a 5 percent annual increase in PG&E electric rates. The ENGIE group said PG&E has actually requested larger rate increases which could push the net savings to the city to $5.7 million.

The bulk of the savings will be realized in the later stages of the 30-year project.

“We may not see it initially, but we will be seeing a savings in the future,” City Manager Doug Dunford commented. “It will help the future budgets of the city.”

The project includes solar panels at a City Hall parking area, and in Henry Miller Park, Pioneer Park/new public works yard and Schmidt Park. The project also includes a citywide interior and exterior lighting upgrade program and heating/air conditioning upgrades at the police station.

The city will own and maintain the solar panels.

ENGIE will also provide a three-year community recreation program through a local non-profit.

Much of the discussion focused on the park lighting.

Foregoing the path lights would greatly reduce the amount borrowed from the sewer fund, council members noted....but they balanced that against the value of the amenity.

“Those lights have no bearing on our net savings. They are going to cost us to put in, but because there is no electricity it is not saving us anything,” commented Mayor Pat Nagy.

“We’re talking about spending $500,000 on something we don’t have now. We’re trying to get back on our feet,” commented council member Craig Turner. “I think I would look at spending the money elsewhere. It would be nice, but maybe not at the present time for that amount of money.”

While a substantial sum is involved, said Mayor Pro Tem Joe Oliveira, “it would be a serious upgrade to Schmidt Park. I think the people would really appreciate that.”

“I think it would be a nice addition to the park,” commented council member Rich Ford, who asked for alternatives to repay the sewer fund loan as quickly as possible.

Dunford said staff is still determining the term of the loan repayment plan. He said the staff hopes to be able to accelerate the repayment schedule and perhaps - depending on energy savings - pay back the loan in 10-12 years.

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to move forward with the energy project - with the Schmidt Park lights included.

Dunford said the energy project makes sense from more than just a financial standpoint.

“This is just another step toward doing our part to reduce the amount of electricity that we are using and saying that we want to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “I think it is a win-win situation for the city.”

According to a time line presented by ENGIE staff, the project could begin as early as December, with final completion early next fall.