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Firing up solar power

By   /   Friday, October 31st, 2008  /   Comments Off on Firing up solar power

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From lemons to tourism, sunshine has long played a part in the tri-county economy. But with nearly a gigawatt of solar power coming online in the next few years, the sun’s role is about to expand.

Solar is shifting to center stage in a host of projects: an array that will help power Santa Paula-based agribusiness Limoneira’s packing operations and put it in the league of Google, a rooftop installation that will lock in cheap energy for the city of Santa Barbara, and a planned set of three solar power plants that will total 977 megawatts and make San Luis Obispo County’s Carrizo Plain a literal powerhouse.

On Oct. 28, lemon and avocado grower Limoneira unveiled a 5.5-acre solar installation. It consists of 6,400 photovoltaic panels that will put out about one megawatt of electricity to power the company’s packing and cold storage building.

To put that number in context, Mountain View-based Google grabbed international headlines in 2007 when it brought online a 1.6-megawatt solar installation on its main campus.

Limoneira’s packing and cold-storage facilities use between 2.5 megawatts and three megawatts of power each day, meaning the new installation will cut the company’s draw from the grid by about a third.

The company pays 13 cents per kilowatt-hour from the grid, but the panels will help it lock in a rate of about 9 cents per kilowatt-hour for the next two decades.

“By farming the sun, we’re going to reduce our costs,” said Harold Edwards, chief executive officer of Limoneira.
But Edwards said cost savings wasn’t the most important benefit.

“We really believe that [sustainability] is what has kept us around for 115 years,” Edwards said. “We believe that’s what will keep us around for the next 115.”

Edwards said the solar installation could also help differentiate Limoneira’s products. Although a major supplier, the company remains somewhat obscure to those outside the citrus and avocado businesses. “We believe the things we do for sustainability will give us the cachet we need to compete and build brand loyalty,” Edwards said.

The solar installation took a year and a half to design and build. It cost $8 million, a price tag softened by the $2.5 million rebate Limoneira will receive from the state and Southern California Edison Co.

The plant is already performing well. “As soon as we turned it on, it was kicking out more energy than we expected for the month of October,” said Ely Key, a special projects manager with Limoneira. Company officials say another solar facility of a similar size is in the works, which could push Limoneira into the ranks of Google in terms of corporate installations.

Up the coast, the city of Santa Barbara has taken advantage of a new practice in solar power financing to install 331 kilowatts worth of panels on one of its city buildings.

The standard solar model – in which a property owner pays for panels and installation – can take years to recover hefty upfront costs. But in recent years, companies have found they can profit by paying for those upfront costs in exchange for a long-term contract to sell the power to the property owners.

Stable property owners, such as cities and established companies, get solar power for a rate that’s competitive with the grid without the massive start-up expense.

In early September, Santa Barbra city officials struck such a deal with San Mateo-based Tioga Energy, founded in 2007, and Pasadena-based EI Solutions to install panels at its facilities at Garden and Laguna streets. The city’s contract will last 20 years.

But by a large margin, the Tri-Counties’ largest solar presence will be a set of three solar power plants that Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has planned for the Carrizo Plain in the far eastern reaches of San Luis Obispo County. The plants will total 977 megawatts of power – almost half as much electricity as the 2.24 gigawatts generated at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

In August, PG&E announced it would team with Hayward-based OptiSolar and Arizona-based SunPower to purchase 800 megawatts of power generated by photovoltaic panels. The two plants – 550 megawatts from OptiSolar and one 250 megawatts from SunPower – are slated to come online in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Further along, however, is PG&E’s teaming with Palo Alto-based Ausra to build a 177-megawatt solar-thermal plant, which will cover one square mile. It’s expected to create more than 350 skilled jobs during construction and 100 permanent jobs when complete.

Now in an approval process with the state Energy Department, the plant is slated to come online in 2010. On Oct. 23, Ausra turned on a 5-megawatt plant near Bakersfield to demonstrate its technology.

Instead of turning the sun’s energy directly into electricity, Ausra’s technology focuses solar rays to heat water inside pipes. The water turns into steam, which spins a turbine to generate electricity. It’s similar to what happens in a coal or nuclear power plant, except with no emissions or waste.

“This plant proves that our technology is real, it works, and it’s ready to power businesses or provide process steam for industries – now,” Ausra chief executive Bob Fishman said in a release when the plant opened.

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