WatchSonoma Watch

Solar arrays to power county facilities



One of Sonoma County’s main government facilities in the Valley of the Moon soon will harness the sun for all of its electricity, making it possibly one of the first

Dimas Duran, site superintendent for SPG Solar, at the new solar array for the Los Guilicos Junior Justice Center in Santa Rosa, on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

municipal centers of its kind in the state.

County contractors two weeks ago activated 2,400 new solar panels at the Los Guilicos center along Highway 12, which includes juvenile hall, courtrooms, Valley of the Moon Children’s Home and other county services and buildings.

The 708-kilowatt system covers three acres off Pythian Road and joins a 750-kilowatt array of 3,500 solar panels installed in 2011 on the center’s roofs and behind buildings against the foothills.

Together, the two systems are expected to cover the center’s electricity needs, or about 1.5 megawatts, enough to power about 350 homes.

County officials say the center could be one of the first “zero net energy” municipal campuses in California, meaning it generates all of its electricity with clean renewable power.

“It could be the first,” said Sam Ruark, the county’s energy and sustainability coordinator. “In our asking around and asking PG&E, we haven’t heard of any other ones.”

The two solar systems will work together but are separate, with the newer system owned, built, paid for and operated by Petaluma-based SPG Solar, a commercial installer with a power purchase and lease agreement with the county. The company expects to recoup its investment via the power purchase agreement. The new system will be unveiled at 11 a.m. Friday in a public ceremony at the site at 6600 Los Guilicos Road.

The larger county-owned system was built for $4.6 million, including $3.4 million in low-interest, clean energy bonds overseen by the federal government and issued by the county, plus federal stimulus money and county greenhouse gas mitigation funds.

The two systems will feed power into the wider grid — generating more electricity in the summer and less in the winter — to meet the center’s annual projected energy demand.

They fit within a larger county effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions and upgrade county facilities for energy self-sufficiency and savings. That $22 million Comprehensive Energy Project includes a 1.4-megawatt natural gas fuel cell that now powers the county’s main administrative center in Santa Rosa, plus water and energy retrofits to dozens of buildings.

County officials have hailed the project as a long-term investment that will cut costs for taxpayers and achieve environmental goals. But the investment comes with risks.

Over 25 years, the county expects to recoup a combined $4.6 million in savings from the off-grid power supply for the Los Guilicos center, officials estimate. Before the two projects, electricity from the grid to the campus cost $350,00 annually.

The overall savings, which include an estimated $1.4 million savings from the newer set of panels, are based on projections showing higher yearly cost increases for PG&E power over the next two decades. Still, actual rates can vary widely in a volatile power market, and sometimes such projects do not work out in taxpayers’ favor.

David Rabbitt, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, acknowledged the projections are not foolproof and the longterm payoff is uncertain.

“We know what our costs are going to be. We’re trying to figure out what PG&E’s costs are going to be,” he said. They could be more, they could be less, he said.

He nevertheless voiced support for the project.

“I love new infrastructure going in, I love new technology,” he said. “We just have to make sure it fits within a business plan that makes sense.”

The two solar systems are set to go live together in about three months after safety upgrades are complete to ensure the grid can handle the influx of new power. Until then, the county has temporarily taken its solar panels at Los Guilicos offline.

Combined, the county and the county Water Agency have about 3.6 megawatts of installed solar power, or enough to supply about 850 homes.

The Water Agency is pursuing what would be the largest solar project in the county, with plans to cover 50 vacant acres near the county airport with 54,700 panels, costing about $100 million

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

8 Responses to “Solar arrays to power county facilities”

  1. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Solar is beautiful.
    The Sun our star. I heard that most people living before the Civil War did not know the Sun was the same as the stars they saw at night.

    I’m thankful for the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home. Tax money well spent. You have to feel for those kids. I wonder what it would be like to live there.

  2. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    We have a power array on my worksite building. It’s cut the power bill more than 2/3. The landlord is extremely happy and expects to have the array paid for in 5 years time.

    The real money sucker is PG&E. They put their profits into their pockets and didn’t keep up with the necessary upgrades of the power grid or the natural gas system. They want us users to pay for the San Brunno gas explosion that happened because they failed at monitoring and upgrading the pipes. they want us to pay for the upgrades which I believe we’ve already paid for over and over again.

    I’d rather the county put their money into solar which supports small businesses and jobs in Sonoma County than into PG&E’s CEO’s deep pockets. The array is permanent and will pay for itself in time. It is a good investment both financially and environmentally.

  3. James Bennett says:

    Creating black holes to take money from.

    That’s what this is coming to.

  4. Steveguy says:

    $100 MILLION for a solar project ? Really ?

    ” The Water Agency is pursuing what would be the largest solar project in the county, with plans to cover 50 vacant acres near the county airport with 54,700 panels, costing about $100 million ”

    The last big energy project has a horrible return on investment and costs us MORE for over a decade ! I think it is like $360,000 a year more for the same amount. Too lazy to look up the Water Agency other fiasco out Airport Blvd.

    It’s all a scheme that relates to the Lobbyist article in today’s PD. These money wasters can get $$$$$$$$ for lining pockets, but they can’t fix the roads. Where has good governance gone ?

    Water is a hundred dollar bill now, not some previous minor expense, and they spend MILLIONS freely ! It is or has become cost negative for growing your own veggie garden. Really.

    Fix the dam roads with the $100 MILLION. Oh my

    ps. Hey PD, please pursue the County and ALL records. There is so much waste and avarice to find. Please win awards for exposing the con game that is occurring with our so-called public servants. Please.

  5. Reality Check says:

    There are two reasons solar polar advocates can pretend that green energy is cost competitive: government subsidies and AB32, which mandates public utilities obtain 33% of their power from narrowly-defined “green” sources.

    To meet this mandate, PG&E and others are signing very expensive contracts that meet AB32 requirements. Guess what, PG&E rates will rise significantly as a result.

    If we do this often enough, yes, even solar power will start to look cheap . . . . . . to people wearing very tight blinders.

  6. brown act Jack says:

    Ah, but, Reality Check, it will provide jobs for the County.

    Someone will have to go out there and wash them down every week or so, till around the poles, check the wiring, and make sure that the inmates don’t electrocute themselves.

    And then , of course, it will mar the landscape of the Hway 12, which is a scenic designated road, but, heck, we have to buy these Chinese products for our country, don’t we!

  7. brown act Jack says:

    Never take advice about a business proposition from someone who is trying to sell you the idea!

    Where is the cost benefit anlysis?

    When you want to do something you should have the staff present both sides of the equation, and not rely on the supporters for all of the information

  8. Reality Check says:

    The first sentence is clearly false. For much of the year the county facility will rely on electricity from the same power grid most of us use, PG&E’s. And for all of the year it will depend on the grid for backup.

    I doubt the cost of relying on PGE’s generating capacity for backup is factored into these costs. Even at that, the article gets fuzzy about whether this project saves even a nickle.

    It is past time for the PD and news media to start writing full disclosure articles on the cost of solar power, its benefits and liabilities. As of today, the media does little more than serve as a public relation’s arm of the solar panel industry.