Fresno, CA Area Rapidly Becoming a Solar Belt

Gap Inc.’s distribution center in Fresno, CA is now powered by solar energy. Smack dab in the middle of California, with an abundance of sunshine, Gap installed 4,500 solar panels on five acres capable of producing 1.9 million kilowatt hours every year, enough to power about 350 homes. It took six months and cost $7 million to build the solar system.

Designed by Richmond, CA based SunPower Corp., the solar panels use a tracking system that automatically tilts the panel so they capture the most sun. According to SunPower, their solar cells and panels generate up to 50 percent more power than other solar technologies.

Renewable Ventures, a subsidiary of Municipal Mortgage & Equity, LLC, own the system. According to the company, “It's an arrangement that's becoming increasingly popular as companies want the economic advantages of solar power without having to pay for building a system.”

"Fresno is a perfect location for these types of projects," said Mark McLanahan, senior vice president, corporate development for Renewable Ventures. "You have plenty of sun, lots of land and air-quality issues. It makes a lot of sense."

Last spring the Fresno Yosemite International Airport flicked the switch on its 4.2 megawatt solar system, the largest kind of any airport in the nation. It will provide 40 percent of the airport’s electricity.

California State University, Fresno, popularly known as Fresno State, finished construction on its 1.2 megawatt solar-powered parking garage late last year. The parking garage has over 3,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels which generate 1.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, supplying 20 percent of the university’s power. It is expected to save Fresno State more than $13 million in energy costs over 30 years.

Last summer the Kings River Conservation District (KRCD) and San Francisco-based Cleantech America LLC announced plans to build an 80-megawatt solar plant in west Fresno County. The solar plant will be 640 acres, and once built, will be the nation’s largest solar plant. The solar plant will not be completed until 2011. However, the first phase could start producing energy in 2009.

Cleantech also announced plans to build a 5-megawatt solar plant in the Fresno County town of Mendota. The plant will be built on 40 acres, and completed in 2009.

The San Joaquin Valley is considered to be the agricultural center of the world. Several large-scale farms installed solar systems. The P-R Farms in Clovis, east of Fresno, installed a 1.13 megawatt system to the roof of its packinghouse in 2005. The California electricity company Pacific Gas & Electric (P.G.&E) paid for half of the solar project’s cost. Although the project cost owner Pat Ricchiuti $3.2 million, in ten years it will “reach full payback.”

Joe Coelho, owner of Terra Linda Farms in southwestern Fresno County, installed a 60,000 kilowatt solar power system on the roof of his onion packing shed. The system will provide about nine-tenths of the packing shed’s electricity, and during the months when the shed is not used it will put electricity in the power grid. P.G.&E will pay for the electricity.

OK Produce, the Fresno County dairy producer, became one of the first businesses in the area to go solar when it installed 2,100 solar panels covering 35,000 square feet in 2002. The solar panels generate enough electricity to power 230 homes.

Other San Joaquin Valley counties follow suit

In Tulare County, which lies south of Fresno, Peninsula Packaging Co. constructed a 10 acre PV solar farm that generates 1.1 megawatts of electricity. The company received a $3.4 million check from Southern California Gas Co. “as a cash incentive” for installing the solar farm.

Further south of Peninsula, the Kohl’s department store in Visalia contains over 2,000 PV panels on its roof which supply 40 percent of the store’s electricity needs. The store in Visalia is one the first Kohl’s stores with PV panels.

According to Paramount Farms in Kern County (the southern end of the Valley), it is the world's largest vertically integrated supplier of pistachios and almonds. It also owns a 1.1 megawatt solar energy plant which generates enough electricity to power about 300 homes.


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