The sun is rising as a brilliant orange against the eastern skies over John Muir’s beloved Range of Light.
Below in the Northern San Joaquin Valley the morning breeze gently rustles pasture grass turned golden by the relentless sun as rows upon rows of black panels get ready to go to work. Computers measure the sunlight. Massive black panels encasing solar cells designed to harness the ultimate renewable resource of ultraviolet rays start tracking sun.
The Robert Schulz Solar Farm generates 1.6 megawatts of clean energy to power the nearby Nick DeGroot South County Surface Water Treatment Plant. Not a single ounce of any type of pollution is emitted to disturb the grazing of nearby cows. The solar farm does it with a slight whirl and a click at the control panels in the middle of the farm that are inaudible unless you are standing right next to it.
It is here less than a half mile from the depression amid roiling hills where Walter Woodward camped 114 years ago to survey the reservoir that carries that the ground work was laid for the South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s second century of service to the communities of Manteca, Ripon, and Lathrop.
The solar farm completed in 2009 was both part of the promise and the vision that today’s SSJID’s leaders are shaping to build on the legacy of the pioneers who had the foresight to secure, protect, and deliver water to transform the South County into a prosperous landscape of farms and cities.
The solar farm in most years wipes out the energy bill the district had been paying PG&E on behalf of the three cities that secure treated water from the adjoining plant – Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy. The 205,000 urban residents that get part of their drinking water from the SSJID surface water treatment plant are now assured the portion of their respective municipal water bills that covers electrical costs to run the treatment plant will always be at least 15 percent less than what PG&E would charge.
That is part of the SSJID mantra – to reduce energy bills across-the-board for farmers, urban dwellers, employment centers, and businesses in Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon by 15 percent.
It is about harnessing the Tri-Dam Project profits that SSJID receives from selling wholesale electricity in excess of $10 million annually to benefit the entire district.
The SSJID goal is not only to take over the retail electricity distribution system but to modernize it as well.
The solar farm, in a way, is as visionary as the original formation of the district.
The second phase completed by ConEnergy was the world’s first single-axis solar tracking system employing thin-film photovoltaic cells.
The technology in 2009 was considered cutting edge as it maximizes power production on cloudy and hazy days. It can literally be a boon in the typically sunny Central Valley where air pollution, dust, and clouds often reduce maximum solar efficiencies compared to more ideal sites in the California high desert provide.
The solar farm – coupled with hydroelectric plants on the Stanislaus River and one at the base of Woodard Reservoir makes SSJID a 100 percent green energy producer.
It is one of the ways the SSJID board is trying to share the benefits of the Tri-Dam Project – a series of three dams and hydro plants built 60 years ago along the Stanislaus River — throughout the district.
The district already has one of the most secure water rights in the state plus what is either the lowest – or close to it – irrigation rates for farm uses.
The district’s next step is to acquire the PG&E retail system to reduce power costs to individuals, businesses, and farmers at least 15 percent across the board. That process is currently stalled as lawsuits work their way through the San Joaquin County Superior Court system.
Board discussing whether
to make repairs to solar farm
On Tuesday, the SSJID board will receive an economic analysis presentation regarding the solar farm. It is designed to spur a discussion regarding proposed repairs that could cost as much as $1 million to restore to its optimum power production.
The district consistently generates more power than it needs to operate the water treatment plant. Under state law excess electricity is simply taken by PG&E without any compensation to SSJID.
Even so a $1 million investment to restore the solar farm to optimum generation levels will result in a 20 percent annual return to the SSJID. That will result in income through the net savings of $1.2 million after the $1 million investment is covered. That reflects the same success the solar farm has enjoyed in its first decade of reducing the use of costly PG&E power.
In 2018 after $50,923 in expenses related to operating the solar farm were taken into account, there was a $263.731 in net income reflected in the $325,984 they avoided having to pay for energy to run the plant after the value of the kilowatt hours. That income is reflected in lower operating costs for the water treatment plant that helps keep water costs down in Manteca, Tracy, and Lathrop.
The SSJID board meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday during a teleconference.
The public can join the teleconference by going to ssjid.com and select “View Meetings Online”. To participate by phone, dial (669) 900-6833. Then enter the meeting ID of 411-691-430 using the password 719207 when prompted.
If you wish to make public comments during the live teleconference, you can alert the board president at the time public comments are called for. Public comments are limited to five minutes per speaker,
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org