Jewish campus leaps into future with huge solar project

It’s quite a view from the roof of the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

The bay sparkles off to the east, the Los Altos hills rise to the west, and sunny Silicon Valley spreads out all around.

Zach Rubin, CEO of THINKnrg photos/courtesy oshman family jcc

Underfoot, however, lies an equally impressive sight: newly installed photovoltaic solar panels — 1,840 in all — that will soon provide the JCC, the Moldaw Residences and the entire Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life with 20 percent of their energy needs.

And the panels didn’t cost the JCC a penny.

The 20-year leasing project is a partnership between the JCC, Moldaw and THiNKnrg, a Palo Alto firm that manages solar energy projects and the financing strategies that make them affordable. Once the panels become operational later this month, it means a win-win-win for the JCC, THiNKnrg and the environment.

“It was always part of the plan to be one of the most sustainable buildings in Silicon Valley and be a model for others,” said JCC CEO Zack Bodner of the 5-year-old campus. “What we’re trying to do is give back to the community and make the world a better place. It starts with the top of the roof.”

The 12 campus structures were designed to be among the greenest in the region. Collectively, the buildings earned a certification from LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and the campus belongs to  the U.S. Green Building Council.

Yet it wasn’t until last year, when the economics of solar energy had grown more favorable, that JCC leaders were open to a solar upgrade.

All it took was a simple Google Earth search to bring the JCC and THiNKnrg together.

“We know this neighborhood,” said Palo Alto–based THiNKnrg CEO Zack Rubin, who spotted the campus’ broad, flat roof space on his computer screen. “We try to identify the largest rooftops in Palo Alto. There were other locations we thought would be a good fit, but [the JCC campus] was something I thought would make sense.”

Rubin’s business plan is simple and ingenious.

Some 1,840 panels compose the solar-energy project on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life.

Investors provide capital for solar panels and installation. THiNKnrg obtains all permits and clearances. Once the solar power starts flowing, THINKnrg sells electricity to the JCC at 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, much less than the 8 cents the local utility charges.

The company sells the JCC’s excess electricity for a profit and also claims available rebates and tax credits, which the nonprofit JCC cannot claim.

“This was definitely one of the more innovative deals in terms of how we structured it,” Rubin said. “The city of Palo Alto has been great. We have to give them credit.”

Though the new system is capable of providing significantly more energy, the JCC campus must sell that energy back to the installing company as part of the deal. The panels are expected to generate 749,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity, and result in savings to the campus of more than $26,000 in the first year and more than $1.5 million over 20 years, according to project managers.

The project reduces the JCC’s carbon footprint by some 9,000 tons of CO2 over 20 years. That’s equivalent to planting 45,000 trees or reducing driving by 17.8 million miles.

“The fact that we had that much flat roof space enabled us to do this,” added JCC interim chief operating officer Ric Rudman. “[Rubin] has a track record and was very motivated to do it. He worked very closely with the financial people to put the package together, and with the city to make sure the hurdles were met.”

THiNKnrg is also developing a 180-kwh solar power installation for neighboring Kehillah Jewish High School down the street. That’s on top of past projects in such locales as Detroit, Philadelphia and El Salvador.

Rubin profits from these projects, but he had an additional motive with the two local jobs. He happens to be Jewish and enjoyed helping the community through these environmental upgrades.

Studying plans on the JCC roof are (from left) Zach Rubin, Ric Rudman, Zack Bodner and Mark Byington.

“When you work with people like those at the JCC, you are totally engaged and it makes for an enjoyable relationship,” Rubin said. “The fact that it’s a JCC in my own backyard and allows me to be more involved in the community made it a great project.”

Though he has a background in commercial real estate, Rubin began re-evaluating his career track in 2008. “I wanted to make an impact and do something more meaningful,” he recalled.

Research convinced him he could make solar energy profitable. In 2010 his company opened for business, and by the next year it had generated $500,000 in revenue. A year later that figure more than quadrupled.

Bodner said the project reinforces the JCC’s image as “an incubator of new expressions of Jewish identity. The environment is one thing people care about. That’s why you see organizations like Wilderness Torah and Urban Adamah. There are expressions of our eco-friendly ethos.”

Larry Marks echoes the sentiment. He serves as chairman of the board for the Moldaw Residences, the eight-building, 182-unit senior living complex on campus. Moldaw will see a utility rate cut thanks to the new solar panels.

Marks says he and fellow residents are happy about helping both the environment and their bottom lines.

“It’s the environmentally proper thing to do,” he said. “One reason we felt this would be a successful campus was because of our connection with the JCC. This was a way we could show cooperation. It really brought together the two agencies.”

For Bodner, the solar panels not only provide a model for other large institutions in the region, but allow him to be a better role model for his 6-year-old son, who is already fairly astute about environmental matters.

“My son went to the preschool here,” he says, “and he gives me a hard time if I use more than two paper towels. We teach the kids their responsibility to the environment, and how that is a Jewish value.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.