Mark Ford

Mark Ford, project manager for the Annapolis housing authority, shows off the solar panels installed on the roof of the Morris H. Blum senior high rise. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / August 9, 2012)

At one of Annapolis' public housing buildings last week, new solar panels on the roof collected energy to heat hot water for more than two dozen apartments below. Inside, a message scrawled on the wall asked whoever had been urinating in the hallway to knock it off.

It seems an odd juxtaposition — high technology above, reeking hallways below — but the two are directly related. The outdated buildings of the cash-strapped housing authority made them prime targets for a company that has come up with an innovative business plan to capture renewable energy credits by spreading green technology — in this case, installing solar panels on the roofs of two public housing complexes at no charge.

The high-tech panels at Harbour House happened to have been installed at about the same time U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspectors in June deemed the housing authority's seven properties substandard.

The Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis has been on a federal watch list for failing conditions for more than a decade, partly because of the buildings' age and partly because of the lack of upkeep from residents, the authority's executive director, Vincent O. Leggett, said.

"Part of the poor scores were not only the physical plant, but the poor housekeeping," Leggett said of the recent HUD report. The housing authority lacks the money to renovate all its properties, and it has recently entered several public-private partnerships to finance projects. The status on the watch list made it hard to get grants.

The economics of installing solar panels — particularly the more efficient type that converts sunlight into heat for water — have changed over the past few years as technology has made the panels cheaper and tax credits have made it more affordable to install them. Thousands of solar panels were installed on public housing across the country using grants from the federal stimulus bill — including a housing project in Washington County, HUD officials said.

But Annapolis' solar panels were installed by a private company that specifically seeks out public housing.

Bill Tamburrino, director of HUD's Baltimore office, said he referred Skyline Innovations to all Maryland public housing authorities, but Annapolis is the only one so far to have buildings that met what Skyline needed.

"For me, this is great news," Tamburrino said.

The Washington-based company does both private and public projects in six states across the country, looking for big buildings with flat roofs and shared hot-water systems. Tamburrino said most public housing authorities that could afford to do so worked to install individual hot-water units in every apartment. But two of Annapolis' older complexes fit what the company needed, including the desire to cut bills today and not invest any money upfront.

"The more dollars that we can conserve, the more dollars we can put into the system," Leggett said.

Skyline's model installs what amounts to a small solar utility on the roof of the building, then sells the solar energy back to the housing authority for 30 percent less than the cost to heat water by traditional means.

The company's solar panels heat hot water for 6,500 residents in D.C. public housing, Skyline spokeswoman Sandra Lee said. And while the company works with privately owned buildings too, she said, it targets public housing because it's a simple sell.

"It's just that benefits to public housing are really clear," Lee said. "They really want the operational savings, and they really don't have the hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront money to invest in installing solar systems."

The panels on the roof of Harbour House apartments and those installed earlier this year on the Morris H. Blum senior highrise together cost about $650,000. Skyline, which secured financing from the parent company of Washington Gas, owns and maintains the panels for a decade while the housing authority sees lower energy bills. Then the housing authority owns the panels.

Meanwhile, Skyline collects renewable energy credits it can sell. Maryland recently expanded its definition of what qualifies for a solar energy credit to include panels that heat water along with those that create electricity, Skyline officials said.

The business model to leverage public housing needs into solar energy credits appears to be a new take on other strategies to lower the upfront costs of installing solar panels, said Rick Peters, president of Solar Energy Services Inc. in Millersville and a board member of the Maryland-D.C.-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association.

"Kudos to Skyline for creating [this] business model," Peters said. "They're bringing a lot of value to the housing authority."

Said Mark Ford, project manager for the Annapolis housing authority: "In the long run, it's going to help everybody out."

For the past 61/2 years, Ford has had the never-ending job of maintenance and repair work on all the buildings. Each newly rehabilitated apartment gets energy-efficient appliances, but Ford said renewable-energy efforts by the housing authority stretch back to solar panels installed on the roof of the Annapolis senior housing highrise in 1976. They were never functional.

"Ever since I worked here, I wanted to get those operational," Ford said. "But then, wow, this came along."

ecox@baltsun.com