MODESTO — California is close to meeting its goal of installing 1,750 megawatts of solar capacity by the end of 2015 and 1,940 megawatts by the end of 2016. The California Solar Initiative’s (CSI) most recent report, published in June, shows the state has reached 94 percent of its 1,750 goal and will attain it with 258 megawatts waiting in pending projects.
The Central Valley is doing its part in helping the state reach those goals. For example, South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID) uses solar energy in its water treatment plant.
“We treat drinking water, and we sell that to Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy,“ said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields. “So it’s right around 200,000 people who get their drinking water from that plant. And 100 percent of that plant’s load is met with renewable energy.”
SSJID has 14 acres of solar panels under glass that it developed in 2007. Its solar panels track the sun from east to west and produce 1.4 megawatts of electricity.
Local residents can also install solar panels on their homes or businesses to produce energy, with a utility company installing a meter to track it. Modesto Irrigation District (MID) introduced a rebate program in 2007 as part of the CSI legislation.
“MID offers rebate incentives to residential, agricultural and commercial electric customers who purchase and install solar generating systems for their homes or businesses,” said MID Public Affairs Specialist Samantha Wookey. “MID has offered two kind of rebates – MID Solar Photovoltaic Incentive for systems that are 30 kilowatts or less and MID Performance-Based Incentive (PBI) for systems that are greater than 30 kilowatts and up to 1,000 kilowatts.”
The programs have proved so popular, they’ve outstripped their funding, so both programs have been suspended for 2015. MID only plans to continue the PBI initiative in 2016, although it will still accept applications for customers who wish to install a system that is less than 30 kilowatts. According to Wookey, the utility company hasn’t seen solar connections decline despite suspending the rebates for the rest of the year.
“To date, we have 2,032 solar systems installed and interconnected to MID that generate approximately 23,400 kilowatts,” said Wookey.”
MID provides service to Modesto, Salida, Empire, Waterford, Mountain House and parts of Escalon, Oakdale, Ripon and Riverbank. Customers who are in those areas and wish to install a solar system must get prior approval from MID and hire a contractor to do the installation. Once the system is ready, MID comes in and hooks it up to a meter.
If you’re thinking of getting solar panels for your home, Shields, who installed solar panels on his house, recommends purchasing them yourself and not signing up for a 20- or 30-year power purchasing agreement.
“I know a lot of people like to do those because there’s no money down,” said Shields. “But you also now have a partner on your house. If you want to sell it, it comes with the requirement that the buyer has to agree to pick up the solar contract.”
The Central Valley is also leading in innovation. Professor Roland Winston from UC Merced is a leading solar researcher. He and his students have developed their own prototype of solar panels that can produce a high heat output even in areas with extreme temperatures.
“We’ve developed a technology called nonimaging optics,” said Winston. “We’re able to produce high temperature … high enough to produce steam with no tracking. So just like the solar panels on your roof don’t move, our solar collectors which produce these temperatures, they don’t move either.
They’ve installed their panels all over the world, with systems in Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, India and China.
Winston and his program, UC solar, are putting together a symposium on solar energy on Oct. 16 in San Francisco at the public utilities commission building. State and international leaders in solar will talk about policy and the latest technologies.
When you include installation costs, it’s currently about twice as expensive to get electricity from solar (roughly 34 cents per watt for solar compared to 12.5 cents per watt for electricity from other sources). But with electricity rates rising and solar falling, the two will soon converge in what’s called grid parity, which is when Winston says things will get interesting.
“Economically, it’s going to become the reasonable choice to buy solar to produce your power,” said Winston. “When that happens, it will really take off.”