Large Encinitas building complex goes solar


On a trip through Encinitas, it’s not uncommon to see quite a few houses outfitted with solar panels as the energy savings isn’t just good for reducing footprint, but actually saves homeowners a bit of money.

Fly over the big businesses in Encinitas, however, and there wasn’t much to see in terms of harnessing the sun’s energy — until now. The North Coast Health Center, which is owned and operated by AmeriCare Medical Properties and is home to El Camino Pediatrics, Davis Pediatric Dental, Imaging Healthcare Specialists, Scripps Coastal Medical Group and more similar healthcare operations, now features nearly 730 photo voltaic panels on its roof space. The switch is expected to be officially flipped early next month, after which time the center will generate around 75 percent of its own house energy.

The key to the decision to go solar, according to AmeriCare president Greg Petree, was the fact that it makes both economic and environmental sense.

“It’s clearly beneficial, not only to the bottom line, but to the environment and the local community as well,” Petree said. “There’s a saying we use here and it’s ‘doing well by doing good.’ ”

For the company’s investment of just over $650,000, the 265 kilowatt system will generate more than 450,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year. According to the EPA, that’s the equivalent of reducing 36,000 gallons of gasoline each year or 338,000 tons of coal not being burned every year.

On the financial side of things, company projections have the solar panels paying for themselves in about seven years.

“The nice part about solar is there is a return,” Petree said. “You make a large upfront capital investment and it does reduce another operating expense on a different part of the balancing sheet. Given enough time, it should make sense.”

AmeriCare hired Borrego Solar to convert the center, and the people there say solar power should be getting more and more cost effective.

“Solar has continued to become increasingly cost effective for California businesses and public entities,” explained Borrego Solar project developer Audrey Copeland. “The cost of installing solar has fallen quickly and by a lot, due to things like technology advancements and the simple fact that the industry has matured.”

A healthcare developer and operator with headquarters in Solana Beach, AmeriCare builds and operates large outpatient health centers — this one in Encinitas and the Vista Medical Plaza — as well as large retirement communities, one each in San Marcos and Fallbrook, under the brand name of SilverGate.

CEO David Petree is the father of Greg and Matt, who grew up in Solana Beach and are now part of the company’s executive team. Greg lives in Del Mar, while Matt recently moved to Leucadia, where his kids are just starting in the Encinitas Union School District.

At the center, which has been open for 30 years, AmeriCare had already switched to LED lights and had the roofs redone in “cool roof” style before deciding to go even further by installing the solar panels. The panels should work for 20 to 30 years.

The company also has plans to convert its landscaping to a drip system and make it more drought tolerant.

“Commercial decisions can be very different from residential decisions,” Greg Petree said. “A lot of these buildings in Encinitas are owned by out of town owners … so maybe they aren’t as invested in the community. We all grew up here, our kids go to the school districts in this community … so we also factor in, ‘Is it the right thing to do for our community as well as our business?’ ”

AmeriCare would like to work with the city to encourage other Encinitas businesses to go solar. Petree said while residential permit applications have been steadily increasing over the past several years, no information is available from a commercial standpoint.

One reason for that may be that there aren’t any comparable businesses in North County that have made this large of a leap into solar.

“We were simply looking just to compare our investment to others in the area and there just isn’t a resource for that,” said Petree, who recently met with Mayor elect Catherine Blakespear on the subject. “(I think we should) find ways to get that information, but, more importantly, to use that information to encourage other like-minded commercial property owners within greater Encinitas to at least consider it. Sometimes having an example of someone doing it in the area, maybe that will motivate someone else to do it.”

Blakespear, a City Council member who will take over as Mayor later this month, said she would be happy to see more businesses moving in this direction.

“We love to have businesses in Encinitas that reflect that environmentally-oriented ethic,” she continued. “(The work being done at North Coast Health Center) is an example of taking that far, and it’s inspiring to the city.”

The Encinitas Union School District has gotten in on the solar act, as all nine schools now feature solar panels.