With about 325 sunny days per year and an average high temperature of 85 degrees, it's hard to beat rapidly growing, resource-strapped Phoenix, AZ, as an ideal site for solar power. With this in mind, Mayor Phil Gordon recently unveiled a plan to turn Phoenix into a solar city, and he was an enthusiastic speaker at a ceremony last month kicking off National Bank of Arizona's solar installation, a 222 kilowatt project that will generate more than 350,000 kilowatt hours of solar electricity annually, enough to power 20 to 30 homes. When completed later this summer it will be the second largest commercial installation in the city. "This project is a great step toward a greener Phoenix and demonstrates our city's potential as a leader in solar power generation," the mayor said.

Several banks around the nation have installed solar technology, but NBA's installation may be the largest. It involves 3,000 modules sitting atop the bank's carports at its headquarters. The $1.5 million cost is a hefty outlay for a $4 billion-asset bank, but Craig Robb, evp at NBA, says the decision was easy given the quick payback and reputational boost for the Zions Bancorp affiliate that has operated in the Phoenix area for 25 years. "This is going to sound like a cliche, but I really feel that we're investing the community," Robb says.

Robb first got the idea of pushing the solar cause at NBA last November when he met Lyndon Rive, the CEO of SolarCity, at an event organized by the city's economic counsel. SolarCity does solar power system design, financing, installation and monitoring. "I was enthralled by what he could offer," Robb says.

Rive recalls explaining that solar power has passed the stage of just being an environmental play. It is now also a financial investment with a decent payback, low risk, low maintenance and warranties. "That intrigued him," Rive says.

The power generated will be use to run the bank, and the rest sold to the local utility company and pumped onto the power grid. Thanks to federal and state tax credits and accelerated depreciation from the Federal government, as well as refunds from the local utility, Robb estimates the project will pay for itself in five years. Given that the solar panels should last 20 to 30 years, "it would make a lot of sense for us even if the payback were 10 years," Robb says, adding that he's already studying the bank's network of 76 branches to see where else he can install solar panels.

SolarCity operates in Arizona, California and Oregon, and has plans to expand into the East Coast next year. Rive says he recently signed a solar installation agreement with a bank in California, but he knows of no bank with a larger solar installation than NBA. But other solar installations at banks have sprung up of late. The Bank of New York Mellon in Everett, MA, installed a 76 kilowatt solar system in April. The 103,000 kilowatt hours generated yearly is expected to generate cost saving of about $15,000 per year. Elsewhere in Massachusetts, Weymouth Bank recently installed an eight kilowatt system that will replace about 10 percent of the bank's energy needs. And in Florida, $1 billion-asset Community First CU completed a LEED-certified branch in Jacksonville, Fla., thanks largely to solar technology.

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