Packers add solar panels to trim electricity bills

07/06/2012 02:22:00 PM
Cynthia David

Like more and more California companies, citrus packer Airdrome Orchards Inc. in sunny San Jose has outfitted its roof with solar panels.

The 305-kilowatt system, running since March, covers the 30,000-square-foot main building and half of a second building, said John Fumia, secretary-treasurer of the family-run company.

When he first received a quote for solar energy a decade ago, there were no rebates or tax credits, Fumia said.

Last year’s pitch by Santa Clara-based Vista Solar Inc. arrived during a perfect storm of incentives, he said.

“Everybody in the company was excited,” he said. “And if you have the space and can make the numbers work, why not do it?

“We have to try and find ways to reduce our fixed costs because we’re not making a lot more for our commodities than we were 20 years ago,” he said.

While the new system promises to produce about 90% of the plant’s energy and break even within five years, Fumia said it’s difficult to know exactly what will happen because he won’t receive a true electricity bill until after the first year of production.

“Based on the conservative models they showed us, it’s a positive cash flow for us in the first year, which is unheard of,” he said. “The operating lease fee works out to be less than what we would pay for electricity per month.”

Dan Arlan, sales manager at Vista Solar, said there’s a misconception that solar is extremely expensive, but the cost has dropped by more than half in recent years, and advantageous lease rates free up cash that companies typically pay to the electric company.

Arlan said his biggest challenge is convincing people that the cost isn’t too good to be true.

“Customers often bring in their annual bill to show us how it went from $100,000 to $2,000,” he said.

“As electricity rates rise, the savings are there,” he said.

“You’re also doing your part for the environment, and telling customers their box of oranges comes from a solar-powered plant is a marketing plus.”

This summer, Vista Solar is working with Uesugi Farms Inc., Gilroy, Calif., a major grower-shipper of sweet and hot peppers, to set up an elevated system on unused land to power its coolers.

The 750-kilowatt system will consist of 40,000 square feet of solar panels, 2,530 in all, each measuring 5 feet by 3 feet, Arlan said.

Uesugi consumes 1.37 million kilowatts of electricity, and pays up to $187,000 a year, he said.

“By offsetting most of the electricity, we’ll be generating close to 1.24 million kilowatt hours annually and help them realize about $138,000 in savings per year,” he said.

On California’s border with Arizona, the sun powers 15% of Datepac’s packinghouse, which packs more than 10 million pounds of dates a year for the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association.

Datepac president Ed O’Malley said the 2005 project, which didn’t benefit from today’s subsidies, was only possible because growers worked together to make it happen.

“It takes a lot of up-front capital to invest in solar energy, and some people may find it difficult to raise that capital,” O’Malley said.

“When you think about it,” he said, “it’s easier to pay your energy bill every month than it is to invest $700,000 or so on a rooftop solar array and wait for the pay back in four years.

“You have to take the long view.”



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