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Let it shine, let it shine

August 14, 2006 - Jon Ortiz - Sacramento Bee

Beneath the solar panels, the freezer section at Tony's Fine Foods is one cold place to work. Solar power runs the 140,000-square-foot distribution center, with power to spare. -Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

How's this for irony? A massive West Sacramento cold-storage warehouse is being powered by one of California's biggest privately owned solar energy systems. Summer's long, hot days are a plus for Tony's Fine Foods, where 5,782 photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof and grounds generate more than enough energy to run the company's 140,000 square-foot chilly distribution center on Reed Avenue.

The $7 million system, which cost about $3.5 million after Pacific Gas and Electric rebates, is roughly the size of three football fields and generates enough electricity to power 850 homes.

"We figure it will save us an average of $22,000 per month on our utility bill," said Scot Berger, the company's owner and chief financial officer. "But beyond the savings, it's something that we're proud to own."

Tony's, which delivers meat, baked goods and other perishables to grocery stores and restaurants all over the West Coast, is on the leading edge of a small but growing number of companies plugging into solar power as a way to hedge their bets against fluctuating utility costs.

Scot Berger of Tony's Fine Foods in West Sacramento checks out the massive photovoltaic system on the warehouse roof. The system is roughly the size of three football fields and generates enough electricity to power 850 homes. -Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

To achieve that, Tony's roof and part of a nearby field are filled with black 3-foot by 5-foot panels that look like gigantic blank dominoes, angled to maximize their exposure to the sun.

The setup doesn't have storage batteries, so when the sun isn't out, the facility draws power from the local grid.

Solar energy makes up a tiny segment of California's energy portfolio, accounting for about one-quarter of 1 percent of the state's total electric consumption.

Still, it is one of the state's fastest growing power generation segments. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District figures that the industry statewide will grow 30 percent to 40 percent each year for the foreseeable future.

"We've received quite a bit of interest in our service area," said John Bertelino, head of SMUD's renewable generation division. "We're working on something with the Los Rios (Community College) district. Government agencies, private businesses are interested, too, everyone from the state Department of General Services to Ace Hardware and mom-and-pop gas stations."

Rising fuel prices, global warming worries and changes in world events that have spooked oil markets are prodding companies to think about solar, Bertelino said.
 

Mix in federal tax credits and subsidies that bring down the cost of installing solar systems by 50 percent or more, and what was once considered a costly fringe technology starts to look like a sound business move.

Some companies tapping into solar power include:

Microsoft Corp., which in April activated a 480-kilowatt system at its Mountain View campus.

Fetzer Vineyards, which started construction last month on a 901-kilowatt array to be finished by October at its Hopland bottling plant.

Wholesale distributor Coastal Pacific Foods, which powered up a 723-kilowatt system at its Ontario center.

Tony's executives started looking into solar power two years ago and contracted Solar Development Inc. of Roseville last summer to design and install a system.

Japan-based Sharp Electronics Corp. made the cells in Japan and assembled them into panels at its Memphis, Tenn., plant. The finished product was then shipped in nine tractor trailers to West Sacramento.

Solar Development's subcontractors took seven months to install the solar array, converters and wiring. The system uses aluminum and stainless steel fasteners and has no moving parts, so it needs little maintenance other than occasionally hosing down the panels to keep them operating at peak efficiency.

Experts say well-made photovoltaic systems last 25 years or more before their capacity to convert sunlight starts to appreciably degrade.

Tony's flipped the switch in May, activating the largest solar plant in a commercial business in California, "and quite possibly the nation," said Kevin Davies, Solar Development's project manager. "It's certainly among the biggest, that's certain."

The electricity generated powers Tony's offices, charges the batteries for 40 pallet movers and 20 electric forklifts, chills its warehouse to 34 degrees and frosts its 38,000-square-foot frozen food section to 10 degrees below zero.

Even with all of that, the system still produces more electricity than Tony's uses. On sunny days the company's meter runs backwards as the excess automatically flows into the grid.

"We figure that our cost savings will pay for the system within seven years," Berger said. "When we added everything up, it was a no-brainer."


OVER VIEW
 

Updated: 2003/07/28