The question of who will implement the East Bay Smart Solar Program, funded by the Depart-ment of Energy with matching city money, brings to the fore the question of how government engages nonprofits and other organizations—for better or worse—to do work it cannot or will not do.
For example, the Community Energy Services Corporation (CESC), a nonprofit that was to have played a prominent role in the Smart Solar project, according to the original February 2007 grant application, has been quietly eliminated from the plans.
“There are doubts about its capability at this time,” Neal De Snoo, Berkeley’s energy officer, told the Planet in a phone interview last week.
De Snoo, however, was quick to praise the Smart Solar team effort that will include the nonprofit Build It Green (BIG), UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, the cities of Oakland and San Francisco and others. The effort is expected to add hundreds of solar energy systems to East Bay homes and businesses.
Nonprofits often bring exper-tise and resources city staff does not have. “Cities rely on them,” De Snoo said. “There’s a variety of people stepping up to play a role.”
At the same time nonprofits are not under state mandates to share information with the public. Nonprofit workers, unlike city employees, often lack union protections: they may be paid considerably lower wages and lack benefits and job security. Nonprofit employees may be hired among friends or acquaintances of organization staff, without the kind of objective search civil service rules mandate.
Volunteer community boards of small nonprofit corporations may oversee work and budgets with less rigor than a municipality might do.
In Berkeley, the city often hires nonprofit corporations without going through the competitive bid process. At the Nov. 27 City Council meeting, the nonprofit Build It Green will be offered a $50,000 sole-source contract to begin work on the Smart Solar project, which, in its pilot phase, will facilitate the installation of solar systems for some 25 Berkeley residents and small-to-medium businesses. In its later stages, the program is expected to drive the siting of some 200 solar energy systems annually throughout the East Bay.
Smart Solar partners
In its original February 2007 grant application to the Department of Energy, the city named the groups it planned at the time to work with on the project: CESC, Sustainable Berkeley, Build It Green and UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. (RAEL is directed by Daniel M. Kammen, also a member of the committee overseeing the collaboration between UC Berkeley and BP, formerly British Petroleum.)
Contracts or agreements with the city are necessary to formalize the relationships. The contract with Build It Green, if approved by the City Council, will be the first given under the Smart Solar grant.
The grant application also names large corporations and financial institutions to be invited to work with the city on the project. They include SunPower (formerly PowerLight), a large solar company now in Berkeley but planning a move to Richmond, BP, Mechanics Bank, Wells Fargo and others.
The Smart Solar program differs from plans to create a solar financing district recently publicized by the mayor’s office. The financing district is to be put together with some of the same partners named in the Smart Solar project, including Build It Green and the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. The city has applied for an Environmental Protection Agency grant and expects about $160,000 to do groundwork on that project.
While the two grants are separate, some of the work may eventually be accomplished in tandem, De Snoo said.
The initial phase of the Smart Solar project is designed as a pilot in which about 25 Berkeley home and business owners contract through the project for solar panels and solar hot-water heating systems. This part of the program is funded by a $200,000 Department of Energy grant and a $370,000 city match that includes an $80,000 cash match from the city’s energy office and an $108,000 in-kind match that will include city staff time and indirect services.
The Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab will contribute the work of two doctoral students.
Smart Solar incentives
The pilot program is intended to attract property owners by lowering the cost of contracting and equipment for installation of solar panels and solar hot-water systems. The price will become affordable by “aggregating projects, contracting and financing,” says a Sept. 18 city staff report.
“If successful, [the project] will also generate business for private solar power companies and increase the number of local jobs,” the report says.
According to the February grant application, studies show property owners hesitate to purchase solar energy systems because they lack technical expertise, which makes them uncomfortable choosing a contractor and negotiating the work.
Smart Solar is intended remove the uncertainty. “A trusted, knowledgeable third party is responsible for specification, sales, bundling incentives and financing, contractor selection and management, and quality control,” the grant application says. “By essentially removing the contractor or its sales agent, and thus the profit motive, from the point of sale, the owners’ agent provides more accurate and consistent financial assessments and claims.”
CESC was to have played the role of the trusted, knowledgeable third party. Now that CESC will not be participating in the contract, the city will either play that role itself, or contract out for it, De Snoo told the Planet.
In the first phase of the project, Build It Green will be charged with doing some of the groundwork, including assembling focus groups to identify the needs of recipients and the barriers that keep them from participating. BIG also will keep attendance lists and minutes, Katy Hallbacher, BIG program manager said Thursday.
BIG is a nonprofit corporation located in downtown Berkeley that began as the Green Resource Center, launched in 1999 by the city, working with Architects Designers and Planners for Social Responsibility and the Sustainable Business Alliance. In 2005 the Green Resource Center merged with a mostly builder-contractor-oriented group, Bay Area Build It Green.
The BIG board includes contractors and suppliers including the Truitt and White director of marketing, the Johns Manville senior territory manager, the president of solar installer Sun Light and Power, the territory manager for Building Materials Distributor, Inc. and a number of professions involved in green construction, according to the BIG website.
None of the professionals on the board will get project contracts, De Snoo told the Planet.
Technical expertise for the project will come from the Department of Energy.
Once the pilot is complete, the full program of 200 solar installations annually in the East Bay is to be launched without DOE funding under the management of East Bay Energy Watch—a partnership among several nonprofits, the cities of Berkeley and Oakland and PG&E; EBEW is managed by the Berkeley-based for-profit corporation QuEST, Quantum Energy Services & Technologies, Inc.
Sustainable Berkeley, a collaborative founded last year among UC Berkeley representatives, environmental consul-tants, and environmental nonprofits including CESC, may play a role in the Smart Solar project, but “no resources are dedicated to them,” De Snoo told the Planet Thursday.
SB may do work under an existing contract, however. Through a city grant, SB certifies businesses and restaurants as green. According to the February grant application, the organization will be “contacting targeted businesses, housing sector-specific events and conducting a media outreach campaign.”
A Nov. 5 amendment to the application says the city and SB will hold a Smart Solar kickoff “to market program to potential customers.”
SB, which is not a nonprofit and whose grants go through fiscal sponsor CESC, came under media and community scrutiny earlier in the year, when it tried to play a major role in implementing the city’s greenhouse gas reduction plan. Criticisms of the group included its closed meetings (in response SB opened its steering committee meetings), the hiring of a board member as paid interim executive director and the attempt to get a city grant to hire consultant Timothy Burroughs to coordinate the city’s greenhouse gas reduction program.
(The city decided not to give SB the funds to hire Burroughs “due to legal questions [on the relationship] between Sustainable Berkeley and CESC,” De Snoo told the Energy Commission at the time. Instead, the city’s energy office hired Burroughs directly.)
In a mid-October meeting with interim CESC director Pat St. Onge and program managers Maria Sanders and Pat Canada, Sanders responded to a question about Sustainable Berkeley, saying “Sustainable Berkeley has gone into hiatus. We [CESC] are continuing their contracts.” Sanders said she was referring to the contract to certify green restaurants.
It appears, however, that SB is active, with Sanders listed as an CESC board member in a Sept. 2007 internet post on SB’s website.
And a call Wednesday to a number posted on the SB website was answered by Leila Khatapoush, who identified herself as a Sustainable Berkeley staff person, working on the green restaurant initiative.
During the meeting with the CESC staff, St. Onge said the 1013 Pardee St. office was not shared with other organizations, however Khatapoush told the Planet she was working out of that office. Neither St. Onge nor Sanders could be reached Thursday for further clarification.
Why CESC’s out
CESC fell out of favor with the city after its executive director allegedly took advantage of the agency’s home repair program to have a hot-water heater installed in her home and also used Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for “non-allowable indirect costs,” St. Onge said.
The director was fired in August by the non-profit corporation board, which is the City Council-appointed Energy Commission.
All CESC programs continue uninterrupted, St. Onge told the Planet in the group interview last month. She downplayed the extent of the allegations, as did board member Tim Hansen in a separate interview Wednesday.
Although De Snoo said CESC wouldn’t take part in the Smart Solar project because of the investigation, he praised its accomplishments. “CESC is doing great work for the city and the community,” he said.
City Manager Phil Kamlarz told the Planet that because the CDBG funds in question came through the city, it is investigating internally and is in the process of hiring an outside investigator to look into the allegations. Over the course of more than a month, Kamlarz and other city officials have declined to name the outside investigator, saying they want to wait for an agreement on the contract scope of services.
Asked why CESC was written out of the Smart Solar grant, given the interim director’s opinion that the improprieties were minor, Kamlarz asked: “Who told you they were minor?” leaving questions hanging about the extent of the damage.
A number of people told the Planet that it is time for the city commission and the nonprofit to separate themselves. Ruth Grimes, Energy Commission and CESC Board chair said the arrangement is unsatisfactory, because the board has only about 20 minutes each month to spend on CESC matters.
In an e-mail response to a request for CESC’s 2006 budget, St. Onge indicated the limits of oversight that the Energy Commission-CESC board has had: “The board was not presented with budgets in the past, and therefore, never approved them,” she said, noting she is preparing a budget for board approval Dec. 5.
Board member Tim Hansen became secretary-treasurer for the CESC after the director was fired and the treasurer, an outside consultant, left. He said separating CESC from the city would be an important step toward getting a nonprofit board that could dedicate adequate time and resources to the job of oversight and support of the organization.
“We’re hamstrung” by our relationship to the city, CESC program manager Sanders told the Planet. “We’re asking the city lawyer if we can divorce from the city.”