California’s San Joaquin Valley Becoming a Solar Belt

The hot, dry San Joaquin Valley of California is best known for its agriculture. As a seventh generation resident of Fresno County I am thrilled it is becoming known as a ‘solar-energy-belt.’
Last year Fresno announced its airport, the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, would install “the largest solar power system of any airport in the country.” Still under construction, the system will consist of 25 acres of PV panels in two locations. It will provide 40 percent of the airport’s electricity.

California State University, Fresno, popularly known as Fresno State, finished construction on its solar-powered parking garage late last year. The parking garage has over 3,000 photovoltaic (PV) panels which generate 1.5 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, supplying 20 percent of the university’s power. It is expected to save Fresno State more than $13 million in energy costs over 30 years.
Last summer the Kings River Conservation District (KRCD) and San Francisco-based Cleantech America LLC announced plans to build an 80-megawatt solar plant in west Fresno County. The solar plant will be 640 acres, and once built, will be the nation’s largest solar plant. The solar plant will not be completed until 2011. However, the first phase could start producing energy in 2009.
“We think the whole San Joaquin Valley will be in the future a solar valley,” said Cleantech President Bill Barnes. “You have great sun characteristics and an air quality that will benefit because solar has zero emissions. It can provide peak power at peak times … and there is the political will in the Central Valley to create renewable energy, particularly solar.”
Cleantech also announced plans to build a 5-megawatt solar plant in the Fresno County town of Mendota. The plant will be built on 40 acres, and completed in 2009.
In Tulare County, which lies south of Fresno, Peninsula Packaging Co. constructed a 10 acre PV solar farm that generates 1.1 megawatts of electricity. The company received a $3.4 million check from Southern California Gas Co. “as a cash incentive” for installing the solar farm.
Further south of Peninsula, the Kohl’s department store in Visalia contains over 2,000 PV panels on its roof which supply 40 percent of the store’s electricity needs. The store in Visalia is one the first Kohl’s stores with PV panels.
Farms going solar
Located in Fresno County, P-R Farms, and owned by Pat Ricchiuti, installed a PV panels to the roof of its packinghouse in 2005. The California electricity company Pacific Gas & Electric (P.G.&E) paid for half of the solar project’s cost. Although the project cost Ricchiuti $3.2 million, in ten years it will “reach full payback,” according to an article posted on Environmental California.
“It’s the right thing to do for the environment and for controlling my energy costs in the future,” Ricchiuti told the California Farm Bureau Federation. “We have the square footage on the roof to accommodate it. Other (renewable energy) sources require other kinds of programs and do not utilize the environmental benefits as well as solar. This is the cleanest form of energy there is. There are no emissions. We felt it best suited our needs.”
Joe Coelho, owner of Terra Linda Farms in southwestern Fresno County, installed a 60,000 kilowatt solar power system on the roof of his onion packing shed. The system will provide about nine-tenths of the packing shed’s electricity, and during the months when the shed is not used it will put electricity in the power grid. P.G.&E will pay for the electricity.
“If that’s good enough for your money, do it,” Coelho said.
According to Paramount Farms in Kern County (the southern end of the Valley), it is the world’s largest vertically integrated supplier of pistachios and almonds. It also owns a 1.1 megawatt solar energy plant which generates enough electricity to power “about 300 average homes.”
“Paramount Farms, a leader in the farming community, is committed to a balanced green strategy, one that utilizes clean energy to reduce costs and improve efficiency,” said Dave Szeflin, vice president, operations, Paramount Farms. “Today we’re pleased to break ground on the first phase of a long-term, comprehensive, solar-power initiative.”

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by

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