Parksdale neighborhood

Solarthon, winery visit highlight Solar power in Valley

Solar energy is showing up in more places in the San Joaquin Valley, where homeowners and farming operations are harvesting the power of the sun in earnest.

 On Saturday, April 21, solar panels were affixed to homes owned by nine low-income families in the Parksdale neighborhood of Madera, courtesy of GRID Alternatives. The nonprofit's third "Solarthon" resulted in those nine families - 14 panels were installed on each house - saving a projected $263,000 over the lifetime of those solar systems, and the elimination of 888 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

Sunpower, Yingli Solar, Wells Fargo, Pacific Gas and Electric, Schneider Electric, Proteus and Modesto Junior College helped sponsor the solar block party. GRID Alternatives, which focuses on delivering solar power and career training to the low income, has installed solar on 310 houses in the San Joaquin Valley since 2009.

"With the help of our generous supporters, GRID Alternatives continues to provide a triple bottom line: much needed cleaner air; energy-cost savings; and hands-on job training opportunities in the Central Valley," said Tom Esqueda, regional director.

GRID Alternative's presence is one why Fresno ranks fourth in the state in solar capacity. More on that ranking here.

"Really, rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the Valley," added Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, a nonprofit that promotes the use of solar power. "Think about it: our incomes are relatively low, our power bills are ridiculously high, and, as you can see, we have more days of sun. . . So why shouldn't we make use of our most abundant natural resource?"

And Fresno, as most people know, is the center of the farming universe. It is the No. 1 farm county in the nation, and agriculture is energy intensive. It takes a lot of juice to run packinghouses, wells, irrigation equipment and trucks. By some estimates, energy is among the top three most costly components of a farming enterprise.

But not for Joey Milla of Milla Vineyards in Fresno, who is reaping the rewards of installing a 66-panel solar system in 2005. "We went from a $7,000-$8,000 power bill per year to zero," Milla said one day before the Madera Solarthon.

The Milla family refinanced their house to pay for the $58,000 system. Solar energy powers the winery, domestic well and residence - everything but the ag well. Energy savings alone will pay off that initial investment in one more year.

It's all gravy after that.

The Milla family bought the system because power purchase programs that eliminate the up-front cost were not available in 2005. Despite that, it turned out to be a wise investment. "It definitely works for us," he said.

The installation is mounted on the ground, which makes maintenance pretty simple. The panels are simply hosed off in a daily 30-minute procedure, which keeps up their efficiency. It gets dusty at the winery at McKinley and Grantland avenues, and dust reduces the efficiency of the panels. So, cleaning them is crucial.

The system has been relatively trouble free. The solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years, although the inverters have sometimes had problems. Small price to pay, Milla says, for energy independence. "The panels are so sensitive that when we bought them and put them on-line you could put your hand over a panel and watch the numbers (on the meter) change."

Solar panel efficiency starts to lessen after 25 years, but Milla isn't too worried. Technological advances are so rapid that replacement panels will likely be more efficient and cheaper.

Photo of Madera Solarthon 2012 by GRID Alternatives