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SSJID on greens cutting edge
Thin solar panel generates power efficiently on hazy days
The thin-film solar energy tracking system is part of the Robert Schulz Solar Farm operated by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District. - photo by Photo Contributed

The cutting edge of the green power movement isn’t in Berkeley nor is it in San Francisco.

You can find it in the parched rolling cattle country 22 miles northeast of Manteca along Dodds Road a stone’s throw or two from a large dairy farm as well as the base of Woodward Reservoir. It is there that you’ll find the world’s first single-axis solar tracking system employing thin-film photovoltaic cells.

The technology is 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 what more ideal sites in the California high desert provide. It could literally open the door for a major energy revolution

The movers and shakers behind the deployment of this innovation aren’t tree huggers, at least not of the stereotyped nature. They are mostly farmers – four to be exact – as well as a retired wastewater treatment plant operator who serve on the South San Joaquin Irrigation District governing board.

And the benefactors aren’t farmers. They are the 155,000 residents of Manteca, Tracy and Lathrop who will now see the energy portion of their monthly water bill associated with the Nick DeGroot Water Treatment Plant stabilize. That is especially critical given the third year of drought is expected to drastically reduce hydro-electric generation and sent PGU&E rates soaring once again.

The second phase of the Conergy system at the Robert Schulz Solar Farm has been producing 419 kilowatts since March to bring energy output to 1.6 megawatts. That’s ample power to run the nearby treatment plant and to wean the district effectively off PG&E for almost all of its power needs. It will also eliminate problems the SSJID has experienced in the past with PG&E power reliability to the treatment plant.

The solar farm wipes out the $400,000 energy bill the district has been paying PG&E on behalf of the three cities. The way the system is set up, the portion of the city billings for the plan that covers power will simply be shifted to debt repayment for the solar project which will be paid back in 10 to 15 years.

The district also will receive $6 million in cash incentives from the state program designed to cover up to 30 percent of a solar system’s installation to encourage public agencies, homeowners, and businesses to go solar.

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 50 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.

The SSJID is able to pursue such goals due to forward thinking and stewardship. The Tri-Dam Project – a partnership with Oakdale Irrigation District that is now fully paid off – generates in excess of $12 million annual as SSJID’s cut after operating and capital expenses are covered.