Green Solutions: Solar Power Installation Steps Up Energy Strategy

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By Anne Vazquez 

Published in the July 2006 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

With efficiency upgrades at the forefront of its energy strategy, the Wine Service Co-operative (WSC) wanted to go a step further. Bob Holmes, general manager, tells how the St. Helena, CA-based company decided to implement solar power at its two locations in the Napa Valley.

What is your position? How many years have you been in facility management?
I am the general manager at WSC. I have worked at the co-op for 29 years.

Please give a brief description of the facilities you oversee.
Both the St. Helena and South Napa buildings serve as co-operative warehousing facilities for 57 wineries in the Napa Valley. The St. Helena facility occupies 182,000 square feet, and South Napa is 160,000 square feet.

Why was the decision made to pursue this project?
Annually, WSC was spending approximately $130,000 on energy for its two facilities. Also, WSC was being encouraged by others in the industry to become more environmentally friendly.

Please describe the decision making and research process for this project.
When the possibility of solar power came up, our Board approved conducting a feasibility study, and I put a project team together. We also hired an energy consulting firm in the area, Récolte Energy, to assist in the process.

Together, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) were offering a rebate program that would refund 50% of installation costs for solar energy systems. We found that solar photovoltaic systems for both facilities would cost $3 million, and the CPUC/PG&E program would provide a rebate of $1.5 million. Federal and state energy tax credits would further reduce the costs about 20%. With our net investment at 30% of the price, it made sense to go solar.

The results of the study were formalized and presented to the Board. The timing was right, and we made the decision to go solar in the fall of 2004. We combined this project with a planned upgrade on our warehouses to improve insulation, cooling, and lighting systems for an additional reduction in energy usage.

What was the vendor selection process like?
We put out requests for proposals to six of the best solar vendors. We then narrowed it down to two vendors, and in the end, we selected PowerLight Corp. of Berkeley. They are a top drawer company, and I am pleased we chose them as the provider. We felt all six potential vendors had solar packages that would work, but PowerLight was the best overall choice for us.

What energy saving benefits have you reaped as a result of this project?
The system went online in November 2005, and the results so far have been promising. Our energy bills decreased from an average of $10,000 per month down to $30 per month, which comprises taxes and regulatory fees.

The St. Helena system has a capacity of 197 kilowatts, and the South Napa system has a 231 kilowatt capacity. This past winter, the solar electric systems generated more power than we needed. Through net metering, our PG&E meter turns backward. This gives us credits that we can use during times of peak energy demand, like in the summer, when we need all of our cooling units.

We have not completed a full year with the system to see if we require any power from PG&E, but at the end of each year the system trues up, and if we generate more power than we use, it will be put into the PG&E grid for others’ use. We will not know until this November if that is the case, but my read is that we are on target for not having to use any energy from the grid.

The system will pay for itself in about nine years. If PG&E costs continue to rise 6% per year, the payback is more likely to be seven years. And the panels are slated to last 25 years.

Did you encounter any unexpected highlights or challenges while implementing this project?
There were no unexpected problems. It is important to have a great solar provider, and there are many here in California.

Did this project require you to change operations and maintenance practices?
No. Maintenance is minimal. The only additional step is washing the solar panels two to three times each year.

What has been the reaction to the project inside your organization?
It has been all positive. Our member wineries fully supported this action. I have not heard one negative comment inside or outside of our organization. We are as green as can be practically achieved.

Why should facility professionals consider a green solution whenever the opportunity is present?
First, one must decide if the ability to help the environment is practical within one’s own business structure. It is important to determine if the benefits outweigh the investment. It does not make good sense if cost is the overriding factor. In other words, if the payback is too long, you must decide if becoming a green power producer is worth the higher investment.

Also, I would recommend using an energy consultant at the start of the research process. A good consultant can get a company up to speed on all the terminology and assist in every aspect of design, vendor selection, and project management.

What was the most professionally rewarding aspect of this project?
WSC is now the largest solar installation in Napa County. It is a great feeling to know we are doing a small part to conserve resources that someday will not be enough to power and sustain California’s growth. Solar is here to stay, and we are proud to be one of the early pioneers in Napa Valley.

Questions about this project can be sent to Bob Holmes at [email protected].

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