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April 1, 2009 > Looking for solar energy

Looking for solar energy

By Meenu Gupta
Photos By Courtesy of Nancy Hartsoch

Supervisor Dave Cortese requested the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to consider, at their March 24 meeting, a proposal for sites in the county that could be suitable for housing major solar power plants. "The board of supervisors passed the proposal unanimously," said Cortese, who represents Santa Clara County District 3.

Solar farms will soon be more common as the Santa Clara County board members seek ways to generate energy to power government facilities and provide revenue opportunities. The administration is requested to do a countywide analysis and develop an inventory of potential locations that could house solar power plants and other solar facilities on county lands.

A process for requesting qualifications and proposals for public-private partnerships will also be decided. The committee will meet again on May 14 when the staff will provide a work report to the commission on the prospective sites decided. "On May 14th county staff will give an update to committee about their work on the solar plant project," said Rabia Chaudhry, Chief of Staff. The project would be aimed at offsetting the county's $20 million yearly electric bill.

Staff will identify those parcels that are suitable locations for solar plant installation. Around 10,000 acres of county land in the east hills is traversed by major electrical lines. Close proximity to such towers can prove to be a good factor for solar facilities because the electricity generated can be efficiently returned to the "grid," or main power supply.

Some large sized parklands, parcels adjacent to PG&E substations, general aviation airports such as Reid Hillview are also good potential sites. Land near two county parks, Joseph D. Grant County Park in the eastern Santa Clara Valley and Ed Levin County Park near Milpitas, has also been proposed. "The two parks are just prospective sites. We have all agreed to work to look for such sites," said Cortese. He suggested various locations, including the regional three airports in San Jose, Palo Alto and San Martin county lands besides the two regional parks. "Such sites could offer energy production, energy savings and revenue to the county's general fund," he said.

Opting for the renewable source of energy has manifold advantages. It will reduce the carbon footprint of people and help in saving the environment. It will also lower the electricity bills considerably. One Silicon Valley company, SolFocus, has already indicated that, based on rough calculations, the county's entire electrical bill could be offset by a 50 megawatt plant on 300 acres. "It is a rough estimate not planned or laid out," said Nancy Hartsoch, VP Marketing, SolFocus, Inc.

Staff would be expected to analyze and provide the Board of Supervisors with more specific numbers once the areas of land are chosen. This information will be critical in assessing whether the County should move forward with solar energy and to better understand what the opportunities are to offset the county's energy use and what is available to sell back to the grid.

"We'll embrace companies who have come forward like Solfocus, Applied Materials and steer them to work for this cause," said Cortese. Many other start-up companies will soon be joining to identify places the county can install solar panels to cut energy costs while combating climate change.

"We're excited about working with Santa Clara County," said Hartsoch. "We will choose lands least disruptive, causing minimum intervention to the environment and work with the County in terms of what we need," she said.

Hartsoch explained that by concentrating sunlight using innovative Concentrator photovoltaic technology (CPV) panels onto a small area of high-efficiency solar cell material, SolFocus systems dramatically reduce the amount of expensive and often supply-constrained solar material used in the system.

"We will also try to have very little permanent shading so that animal and plant life is not disrupted and the ecosystem is not disturbed. We'd suggest sticking to rooftops and paved areas, where possible, for least intervention," she added. Parking lots and buildings are better for capturing the sun's energy in terms of cost saving and saving the environment. Santa Clara County has a lot of potential land with good sunshine, Direct Normal Irradiance (DNI), waiting to be harnessed.

South Bay school districts have already placed solar panels on their properties. Fremont Union High School District and Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD) have realized significant savings. According to MUSD solar project program provided by John Cimino, Director of Maintenance Operations and Transportation, solar energy provides 75 percent of the district's annual electricity needs and 100 percent of its needs during the summer.

Solar Installations across 14 sites provide shade for cars, students, staff and the community. The clean energy helps preserve a healthy environment by the reduction of 26,000 tons of carbon which is equivalent to planting 270 acres of trees. This is an example worth following as it yields profitable results in hard times that are also eco-friendly.

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