Solar Valley

Clean energy champion heads to Sacramento

Sanford Nax Esq.
Sandy Nax has left the building.

After more than two years championing the cause of clean and alternative energy at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, the veteran journalist and all-around nice guy has taken his talents to California's capital city where he'll be writing about everything real estate for the Sacramento Business Journal.

Sandy has a way with words, producing hundreds of posts on everything from the corporate clean energy buy-in to cow power and anything and everything solar. In fact, one of his last posts, Solar energy advances at rocket speed, is all about the advances of sun-produced energy and politicians missing the memo.

He spent the bulk of his 30-plus year career at the Fresno Bee, a senior reporter known and respected all over the Valley. When it looked as if the newspaper industry was heading for the trash bin of history at record speed, Sandy opted to diversify. He saw promise in the clean energy industry.

While it turns out the demise of the printed daily news story may be somewhat premature, Sandy was right about clean energy. It continues plugging along, winning friends and influencing people. As for newspapers, Warren Buffett seems to think they have a future. The world's third-richest man recently purchased 63 papers from Media General Inc. He's banking on mid-sized papers and a public that believes in quality content that won't be given away.

Let's hope so. Sacramento won a great reporter. Sandy says of the place after his first day: "Great group of people and lots of resources."

Here at the SJVCEO, Sandy mastered social media, building up the @SJVCEO Twitter feed to more than 1,000 followers. He buffed up the organization's facebook site to about 450 friends and its fan page to 169 likes. He also secured a sizable Tumblr following and wrote hundreds of blog posts.

The blog site has generated more than 77,000 page views and has had record visits most every month this year. Of course, for a couple of guys who worked at a newspaper that had more than 166,000 daily subscribers, that still sounds like peanuts.

But in Sandy's case, he was starting from scratch. "SJVCEO who?" people would say. Heck they still say it. But we've had some influence. And Sandy has worked on clean energy projects, helping about 40 cities and counties install energy efficiency retrofits that will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual utility bill savings.

Sandy championed the concept of Solar Valley. The idea is that the region has sun, land, wind, biogas, biofuel, innovators and people who are not afraid of hard work. In other words, all the elements of a clean energy nexus. Solar Valley could be the next Silicon Valley, Sandy would say. Or something like that.

We would talk back and forth about the why not? Clean air is a good thing. Clean energy can generate thousands of jobs and much needed tax revenue. What's not to like? We all want to see the Sierra again and lose the asthma and pollution-violation days.

Sandy you will be missed.

Cows soak up solar power as farmers embrace renewables

The 250-mile  San Joaquin Valley is the nation's salad bowl.

Farmers in the eight counties from Lodi to the Grapevine produced almost $26 billion worth of food and fiber in 2010. Agriculture is big business - and consumes gobs of power.

Which is why farmers here are embracing renewable energy to help power their enterprises. Solar is the energy of choice, which makes sense in a region with my-shoes-are-melting-into-the-pavement summer temperatures. Solar arrays are being installed on rooftops, carports and other places throughout the Valley.

This dairy was the first in Kings County to get solar, but more dairies and feedlots will likely install alternative energy. This item notes that a Coachella company installed solar energy at a feedlot to provide energy and shade.

The San Joaquin Valley has about 1.8 million cows and 1,700 dairy farms, according to Neil Black, president of California Bioenergy who spoke at a recent California Public Utilities Commission meeting in Fresno, (Here's our blog post from the meeting), so maybe we'll see more cows mixing with solar projects.

The Valley's vast expanses of land are attractive to developers of larger-scale solar projects as well, so planning officials in the region are formulating land-use policies to avoid conflicts with prime farm land. Those projects garner the big headlines, but individual growers and farming operations, such as those mentioned above and Fowler Packing  (with its new 8,256 solar panels), are really helping harvest the sun.

Fowler Packing plans to use solar energy to help power its packing and cold storage facilities. It won't be the last San Joaquin Valley - or should we say, "Solar Valley" - farming enterprise to reach for the sun.

The Sun Shines on California's Grape Industry

Kern County is one of California's primary oil centers, but the sun-kissed region in the San Joaquin Valley is rapidly gaining cred for solar power as well. The latest example: this 516-kilowatt system at Giumarra Vineyard, a major player in the county's $4.7 billion farming industry. (See ag report here.)

Almost 2,300 solar panels will help power the main production and cold storage plant. Giumarra is the latest in a long string of farming enterprises in the Valley to discover the power of the sun, and is the latest solar project in a region of proposed solar projects.

Many farmers are embracing solar and renewable energy in the Valley even as some agriculture groups and local governments are drafting new land-use policies to avoid conflicts with solar and prime farmland.

But solar makes sense down on the farm. Growers have ample land, use large amounts of power and can save money - and possibly create another cash crop - by using solar and other sources of clean energy. Some creative measures, such as mixing "solar trees" with real trees, are being proposed to ease potential land conflicts.

Increasingly, farmers are harvesting clean energy in Solar Valley.

Could the San Joaquin Valley grow solar trees?

San Joaquin Valley farmers are among the most productive and efficient in the world, so it doesn't come as a shock to learn they are embracing solar power, which can reduce their costs, decrease their carbon footprints and potentially be a new cash crop.

This edition of sierra2thesea - produced by a former Valley resident who now lives on the Central Coast - has a couple stories on the subject. One covers the overall growth of solar down on the farm and the other notes three proposed solar projects in Fresno County, including one that combines solar "trees" with regular fruit trees as a way to possibly ease the conflict between prime farm land and renewable energy.

Solar power makes sense in a region with up to 300 days of sun per year, high power bills and vast expanses of land, but farm officials worry about possible conflicts with the $6 billion agriculture industry in Fresno County. More on those conflicts here.

If those conflicts can be managed, the San Joaquin Valley could see more solar energy. The Fresno metropolitan region already ranks fourth in the state in its use of rooftop solar (more on that here) and the robust potential of solar arrays at farms and other sites in the 27,000 square miles that encompass the Valley could make us a showcase for renewable energy.

Maybe we could become known as Solar Valley.

Fresno unleashes its solar power!

More property owners in Fresno are using the sun to power their homes, according to a new study.

The number of rooftop solar installations has doubled in the past two years, ranking Fresno fourth in the state in the amount of solar-generated electricity and fifth in the number of installations on residential, commercial and government buildings, an advocacy group, Environment California Research & Policy Center, reported Wednesday.

Fresno's 2,146 rooftop solar arrays produce 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 22,000 houses. Each megawatt prevents the emission of an estimated 700 pounds of smog-forming pollution annually.

"Competing with the state's biggest cities, Fresno has emerged as a real solar-power leader," said Stephanie Droste-Packham of Environment California. "The Central Valley is growing its solar-power market one roof at a time."

Rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the San Joaquin Valley, especially considering how sunny and hot it is here, said Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the Fresno-based nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.

"Incomes are low and power bills are high," she said. "Why not utilize the region's most plentiful resource to bring down those power costs and put more money in people's wallets. We could easily become a solar valley!"

Environment California and city officials announced the study results at Ivan Lopez's home in the Little Long Cheng housing community in southeast Fresno, where 25 of 41 houses, including Lopez's, are solar powered. It is estimated that Lopez and the other homeowners there will save a combined $390,000 in energy costs over 30 years.

Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit that installs solar panels in low-income regions, installed the solar systems at Little Long Cheng. KMJ has more here.

San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose rank higher than Fresno in solar capacity. San Francisco, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Oakland and Chico round out the top 10. Clovis is ranked 11th.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin reaffirmed her commitment to solar power in Fresno on Wednesday, and capacity could continue to expand. Other regions also are gaining solar power. Capacity in Sacramento, for example, tripled over two years to 16 megawatts. Read more here in The Sacramento Bee.

Photo of Grid Alternatives "Solarthon" in Fresno

Jail Facilities Lock Up Solar Power

My friend half jokingly refers to the inland portion of Central California as "Valley of the Cons" because prisons employ so many people here. The state Department of Corrections is listed as major employers in Madera, Fresno, Kings and Kern counties, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Coalinga, Corcoran and Chowchilla are home to some pretty large correctional facilities. Then there are the smaller county jails. Both kinds of lockups face the same dilemma: shrinking budgets. Maybe Solar Valley can meet Valley of the Cons. Sixty miles to my north is Merced County, where officials thought up a way to slash power bills, contribute to the state's ambitious 33 percent renewables mandate and make a few bucks. They signed a deal with Siemens to put solar panels at a county jail. More on that here.

The idea of using solar energy at prisons isn't new. In 2001, wrote about this project in Alameda County, and state officials are planning solar panels at prisons in Delano and Tehachapi, both in Kern County (also Blythe and Lancaster, according to this story ).

The solar array in Merced County will cover 4.5 acres, offset 75 percent of the power usage at the John Latorraca Correctional Facility and Iris Garrett Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex, will lead to an estimated $14 million in energy savings over 25 years and could create $9 million of positive cash flow over the same 25 years. It also will eliminate about 1,000 tons of CO2 emissions when combined with lighting upgrades implemented by Siemens.

The county will receive solar incentives totalling $1.5 million over five years, and is eligible for PG&E's capital improvement rebate.

Powering jails with solar energy is only one way that local governments can slash utility costs. Increasingly, cities and counties are using solar energy to save money at their biggest energy hogs: water treatment plants.

SunPower Corp. has finished deals at water operations in Los Angeles, Riverside and Sacramento counties, according to this article in pv Magazine, but they are hardly isolated cases. Similar connections are in place in Parlier, Tulare and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. Learn more here.

The San Joaquin Valley, where I sit, is blessed with lots of sun. But that sun also creates triple-digit temperatures in the summer, which leads to high power bills and high energy use. Utilizing the rich solar resource to attack the high power bills makes sense here. That's why officials at UC Merced, which has a top-notch solar research program, unofficially dubbed this region "Solar Valley."

That certainly sounds better than "Valley of the Cons."

Photo: Aerial view of Tulare wastewater treatment plant

On The Road To Solar Valley

Officials at UC Merced sometimes refer to the San Joaquin Valley as "Solar Valley" to distinguish the emerging clean- energy potential of the 250-mile region from Stockton to the base of the Grapevine.

We are closer to achieving that designation after five solar applications were approved or recommended for approval this week. They include four proposals in Kings County and one just south of Fresno in Fresno County. Together, they total 663 acres.

The proposal south of Fresno is one of about 30 solar plants pitched for various places in Fresno County. However, the emergence of a solar industry in one of the largest agricultural regions in the United States - the San Joaquin Valley is often referred to as the nation's salad bowl - is not without controversy. Applications are carefully scrutinized because farmers worry about solar displacing prime agriculture land.

A lawsuit has been filed, and guidelines are being prepared. The above-referenced Hanford Sentinel story by Seth Nidever notes that solar developers on prime farm land in Kings County must set aside other property for agriculture. In one creative approach, a solar developer is allowing farming between rows of solar panels.

The Fresno Bee, in this editorial, suggests that a balance be struck: "There is much room for compromise on this issue and the board, the solar industry and farming interests must be willing to find it. Solar and other renewable energy technologies are in their infancy. Fresno County cannot ignore their potential," the editorial states.

It remains to be seen how large the solar industry becomes in the Valley, but Gov. Jerry Brown is a big supporter of solar generally. One milestone has already been reached; Rooftop solar power in California has reached 1 gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts, That's enough to power 750,000 houses, according to this San Jose Mercury News article. In an interesting side note, Facebook is installing a rooftop solar system that provides hot water as well. Here's more on that.

The San Joaquin Valley, which its ample sun resources and midstate location, could be a major player in the solar industry.

Federal Government Calls For More Rooftop Solar

The San Joaquin Valley, with ample sun and land resources and mid-state location, is ideally positioned to help California reach its new 33% renewable energy mandate. As a result, dozens of solar-energy development proposals are waiting in the wings that could, if they get approved, help create what UC Merced envisions as "Solar Valley."

To us, Solar Valley would be more than large-scale solar farms that provide electricity to thousands of homes. It would also include smaller-scale localized developments that power dairy farms, water-treatment plants, warehouses, packinghouses, universities and schools, office buildings and apartment complexes.

One way to do that is through rooftop solar, where panels are affixed to tops of parking structures and buildings. The systems are close to the power source, and can help reduce power bills.

We've written about the concept previously, but now the federal government is attempting to boost it by challenging cities and counties to cut red tape, update codes or otherwise make rooftop solar easier and cheaper to install.

Fresno and Tulare counties are home to dozens of warehouses and distribution centers that could accommodate rooftop solar. The region is growing rapidly, and presents robust future opportunity for developers and businesses to become power generators through innovative rooftop solar programs.

Al Weinrub, a leader in the rooftop solar movement, has more in this study. Solar Valley may not be so far away after all.

SCE rooftop solar project photo by

Solar could unlock path to clean energy; the sooner the better

The man with gnarled hands was a legend in Skagit County.

Many in the Washington state farming region said he could find water in a desert. The man's name eludes me and I'm sure he passed from this world, but he developed a reputation for finding the shortest route to tap fresh ground water. He charged nothing, and people from all walks swore by his skills.

I feel like asking that old water witcher for his advice now. But rather than water, I'd ask him to work his magic on the clean energy industry. Maybe take that fresh-cut Y-shaped branch and point to the shortest route for unlocking thousands of jobs in the promising sector.

Kind of a wise man (or woman) on the mountain thing.

After several years of hype, the clean energy industry appears on the verge. Solar's finally looking like it's got the chops to compete. Biofuel breakthroughs may propel relatively cheap new sources of U.S.-made fuel into the domestic pipeline. And wind continues to kick up dust, not to mention a bubbly hillbilly cousin, geothermal.

Nuclear's Fukushima shuffle appears to have added shine to the green sector. Nuclear power's reliance on huge government subsidies don't help it much either. And Germany's backing off nuclear further burnishes renewables's image.

Clint Wilder, senior editor of Portland, Ore.-based consultant Clean Edge Inc., offers an explanation for the recent spate of news. "Follow the money," he writes in a post.

Businesses from a variety of sectors and borders are looking to cleantech for opportunity, Wilder says. Among the examples he mentions is a $1 billion investment by European oil giant Total in SunPower.

Adam Browning of reports that the global solar photovoltaic market went from $2.5 billion in 2000 to $71.2 billion in 2010. Browning also writes about how the New York Solar Jobs Act, which seeks to build 5 gigawatts of solar in the state by 2025, has attracted the promotional efforts of "The Bachelorette's" Ryan Park and spots on the CBS Super Screen in Times Square.

A number of sources predict solar will reach parity with fossil fuels, most recently General Electric's Mark Little, global research director, who in a recent interview with Bloomberg estimates five years.

The U.S. Department of Energy also has contributed to the effort, most recently allocating $27 million to standardize regulatory procedures, reduce fees and "reduce the overall costs associated with permitting and installation," officials say. DOE also has established a $12.5 million challenge to encourage cities and counties to compete to streamline and digitize permitting processes.

In California, my employer, the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, which largely administers clean energy grants for local governments, has uncovered a list of 93 solar projects in our valley that are either in the regulatory process or being proposed, and, according to California Department of Fish and Game, have little or no environmental impact to wildlife resources.

The projects represent about 8,600 megawatts and would cover about 64,000 acres. That's real progress and furthers the University of California, Merced's declaration of this as Solar Valley.

And I came across a juicy statistic in a piece by Michael Moynihan on Huffington Post about the new guy President Obama wants as Secretary of Commerce. Nominee John Bryson, former CEO of Edison International. Southern California Edison, looks like a good pick for cleantech. His legacy? A subsidiary of Edison International, writes Moynihan, buys 65 percent of all solar power generated in the United States.

The San Joaquin Valley contributes a big portion of that sun-harvested energy and will provide more, soon. My colleague and I have been saying for the past year that our region is a Petri dish for clean energy, with all its attributes. I hope we're right. With jobless rates in rural parts of this region pushing 40 percent and national rates climbing, we could use the economic activity.

The need couldn't be greater. The International Energy Agency says that after a dip in 2009 because of the global financial crisis, "energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions in 2010 were the highest in history."

The IEA says it estimates that 80 percent of projected energy-related emissions in 2020 are "already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today."

But recognition of coming trouble is starting to dawn. While the topic remains ultra-controversial and mostly off limits in Congress, others in the international arena are less afraid to address the symptoms of climate change. The Associated Press reports that in Sao Paulo, Brazil at the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit officials from the World Bank and 40 cities from around the world pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is optimistic. "This unique partnership with the World Bank will help solve many of the problems that cities face in obtaining financing for climate-related projects," he tells the AP.

Sounds good, but it's likely just a drop in the bucket. Change, the saying goes, doesn't happen overnight.

We could use that old water witcher right about now. Maybe he's already here. Bill McKibben and his offer some pretty good directions on how to get there.

Another Shout-Out For Solar Energy In San Joaquin Valley

The deserts of Southern California garner most of the headlines when people talk of the potential of solar energy in the Golden State. But the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is equally suitable, if not more so.

Increasingly, word of its potential is seeping out. The latest endorsement comes from The Bakersfield Californian in the form of an editorial that calls solar projects in western Kern County "the perfect marriage of land and need."

The western side of the Valley has some tantalizing attributes, as sierra2thesea notes in this article, and in this one. Thus, there are some rather impressive solar-energy projects on the drawing boards.

One of the largest is a 400 megawatt array just east of Interstate 5 near Tranquillity in Fresno County that would be built in phases, and could contain up to 2.5 million solar panels sprawled over 3,500 acres. The proposed western Kern County project is on land that cannot be farmed and, as such, is supported by the Sierra Club.

The west side has thousands of acres of fallow farmland that could mesh with solar and other types of clean energy, including biofuel. Meanwhile, proposals in the Mojave Desert and nearby Carrizo Plain have drawn fire from environmentalists.

However, that doesn't mean that solar panels will layer all geographically suitable land in the Valley. Property that is protected from non-farming development by The Williamson Act would face additional hurdles.

Still, there is a reason why University of California, Merced, which is conducting cutting-edge research into solar energy and algae biofuel, refers to the San Joaquin Valley as "Solar Valley."

But Solar Valley, in our opinion, would be more than just large-scale solar projects. There is plenty of opportunity for smaller more localized projects, such as rooftop systems by cities such as Fresno, and in the Valley's $20 billion farming industry. Fresno Bee reporter Robert Rodriguez writes about solar and agriculture in this story.

Economic development experts have long wanted to diversify the Valley's economy. Maybe Solar Valley is one way to do it.

New Green Hall of Fame Inducts First Members

Six businesses and entities were the first inductees of the International Green Industry Hall of Fame at a recent conference at University of California, Merced.

They are: American Council on Renewable Energy; Duke Smart Home Program; Grundfos; Josh Dorfman, The Lazy Environmentalist; Drip Tech; and the city of Fresno's recycling program, according to the Merced Sun-Star, which covered the event.

About 250 people, including students in green programs, attended the conference last Friday. It was appropriate that UC Merced hosted the inaugural session.

The campus, which is the newest in the University of California system, is rapidly becoming a leader in the green movement. Seven of its buildings are either Silver or Gold LEED certified, and the campus conducts cutting-edge research into solar and biofuels. It is in the middle of the resource-rich San Joaquin Valley, which is attracting strong interest from developers of renewable energy, particularly solar.

In fact, UC Merced says its goal is to become "the hub of Solar Valley." The Valley has lots of sun, acres of flat land that can be used for solar facilities, is close to transmission lines, has windmills off its southern and northern tips, is sandwiched between major population centers , is ringed by universities that can use the Valley as a giant Petri dish and a population with high power bills that can benefit from energy efficiency and development programs.


Pacific Gas and Electric To Hook Up More Solar

Pacific Gas & Electric has released more information regarding three large solar farms that it plans to build in Solar Valley, oops, I mean the San Joaquin Valley. It turns out the solar arrays will be built near Five Points and Helm, according to this story in The Fresno Bee.

The projects will generated a combined 50 megawatts of electricity, which PG&E says is enough to power 15,000 homes, and is the first big push by the utility to own and operate facilities, according to Tim Sheehan's story in The Bee.

We here at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization believe that the region from Stockton to the Grapevine is an ideal spot for solar energy. We have ample sun, access to the power grid and lots of former farmland that is no longer productive - and flat.

Mike Jones of PG&E agrees. Sheehan quotes the power-generation manager as saying this, "The Central Valley holds tremendous potential as a source of clean energy for California."

And it comes at an opportune time. The solar sites will provide about 500,000 hours of paid work when the unemployment rate in Fresno County is about 17%. It also comes when utility companies are encouraged to increase their amount of green power to 33% by 2020.

The PG&E plants follow a similar one by Southern California Edison in Porterville. Budgets are an issue of course, but California has shown its willingness to embrace solar and other renewables. Maybe this is just a precursor of what could come.

Utility To Operate Big Solar Farm Near Fresno

In the same week that Southern California Edison flipped the switch on its new 5 million watt solar project near Porterville, it was announced that a neighboring utility will build three solar plants near Fresno.

The three projects, which are part of Pacific Gas and Electric's commitment to increase solar power over the next five years, will generate a total of 50 megawatts of electricity - enough for thousands of houses.

Solon Corp will start constructing a 160-acre solar plant in April for PG&E somewhere "in the vicinity of Fresno," Solon officials said in this press release. At 15 megawatts, it could supply power for up to 15,000 homes when finished in October.

The system will be a cluster concept with fixed-tilt mounting, and will feature remote control and monitoring.

Not to be outdone, Cupertino Electric Inc. of San Francisco will build a 15 megawatt and a 20-megawatt plant for PG&E, also near Fresno, according to the Central Valley Business Times.

The proposed arrays are more examples of the San Joaquin Valley's emerging solar-energy industry. With vast expanses of open and flat land, easy access to the power grid and ample sun, the region from Stockton to the base of the Grapevine could be the new "Solar Valley," according to officials at University of California, Merced, which conducts solar research.

The San Joaquin Valley is one of the largest agriculture regions in the world. Many observers think think solar could be an additional cash crop on marginal or poor farmland.

photo by

Could Solar Parity Lead To Solar Valley?

One of the biggest complaints against solar power has been that it can't survive without subsidies. Critics may have to soon come up with a new argument, a noted futurist says, because costs are coming down quickly as technological advances accelerate.

Ray Kurzweil told grist, an environmental online magazine, "The costs are coming down rapidly - we are only a few years away from parity. And then it's going to keep coming down, and people will be gravitating towards solar, even if they don't care at all about the environment, because of the economics."

Not everyone agrees. Brian Merchant of Treehugger argues that the powerful lobbying and political forces behind so-called "dirty fuel" won't let solar take hold anytime soon. "Relying on technology alone isn't likely to get us there," he says.

All this talk raises possibilities in the minds of myself and Mike Nemeth, my colleague, at the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, which is dedicated to promoting energy-efficiency and renewable power in the resource-rich California interior.

Our office is in Fresno. Just a few miles away is some of the most productive farmland in the world. Agriculture here is a $20 billion industry, and it consumes a lot of power.

Plus, it gets hot here, as in I-can't-touch-the-steering wheel-of-my-car hot. Summer temperatures often are in triple digits, and residential and commercial power bills soar. A friend of mine once joked, "Is my power bill supposed to contain a comma?" As fuel prices climb, more people are thinking solar.

A solar boom could transform this region. The San Joaquin Valley could lead the nation in renewable energy, as well as agriculture. Farmers could, as this story in Agweek states, create a whole new cash crop.

The Valley has thousands of acres of former farmland sitting fallow. That land, which is laser flat and environmentally safe, is ideal for solar farms. A big transmission line extends down the west side of the Valley, and acres of warehouse rooftops in Fresno and Tulare counties are ideal candidates for rooftop solar systems.

There's a reason why University of California, Merced, which is conducting groundbreaking research in solar power, has dubbed the 240 or so miles from Stockton to the Grapevine "Solar Valley."