A solar power surge: Central Coast harvests the sun

Jim Efird paused next to a row of huge, gleaming wine vats at the Tolosa Winery just south of San Luis Obispo. Electrical refrigeration units hum in the background.

“This is so cool,” said Efird, one of the winery’s principal owners. “Can you believe that solar panels power all of this?”

Those solar panels — all 2,508 of them — sit a few yards away on a 3-acre installation next to the winery. On this crisp, clear autumn afternoon, the panels crank out 137 kilowatts of power, equivalent to about 200 horsepower.

Tolosa Winery is one of an increasing number of Central Coast homes and businesses that are taking advantage of tax credits and other incentives to install solar systems to cut their electrical bills.

“It makes sense to use the clean, renewable resource of the sun to power our business,” said Bob Schiebelhut, another owner.

According to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., 456 homes and 29 businesses in San Luis Obispo County have installed solar panels since the beginning of 2007. Together they produce some six mega-watts of power, enough to power about 6,000 homes.

Throughout PG&E’s service region in Central and Northern California, more than 30,000 photovoltaic systems have been installed, more than any other utility in the nation, said Kory Raftery, PG&E spokesman.

“In fact, this represents 40 percent of the installs throughout the entire United States,” he said.

This profusion of individual solar systems is part of a larger trend statewide and locally. Two large commercial solar plants are proposed for the Carrizo Plain in the county’s southeast corner, designed to produce a combined 800 megawatts of power.

One of these solar companies — SunPower Corp. of Richmond — also installed Tolosa Winery’s 539-kilowatt system.

Tolosa has another photovoltaic system at its San Miguel winery, which is twice as big as the one in San Luis Obispo.

The San Luis Obispo installation cost $3 million, Efird said, while the one in San Miguel cost $6 million. The winery expects to recover those costs in seven years through reduced electrical bills and other savings.

The systems are guaranteed by SunPower to last 25 years, and each supplies 90 percent of the wineries’ electrical needs.

State law limits these individual photovoltaic systems to producing only the amount of power the home or business uses.

Ninety percent gives the wineries some buffer in case they realize additional electrical efficiency in the future.

“To overbuild would not make much sense,” Efird said.

In addition to saving on their electrical bill, businesses such as Tolosa Winery also enjoy tax breaks and rebates intended to encourage solar power installation.

The state has set goals for increased renewable energy production in order to decrease dependence on foreign oil sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, Tolosa’s solar system is expected to displace more than 32 million pounds of greenhouse gases over the next 30 years. This is the equivalent to the emissions displaced by removing more than 2,600 cars from the state’s roads.

According to the winery’s online tracker, the solar plant has already displaced 164 tons of carbon emissions since it was installed in August just before the fall grape harvest.

Incentives for businesses to install solar panels come in two basic forms, said Paul McMillan, utilities manager for SunPower. The federal government offers 30 percent income tax credits for solar installations; accelerated depreciation for property taxes is also available.

The state also offers rebates. The values of these rebates are on a sliding scale depending on the timing of the installation and expected performance, McMillan said.

Business people who have had solar systems for a while say they are well worth the effort and upfront expenses involved.

In 2004, Jim Dee installed 98 solar panels atop his Palm Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo.

The system cost $100,000 and he received a rebate check for $37,000. The 12-kilowatt system produces a little less than the total amount of electricity the theater uses.

“Before I installed the solar system, I paid $1,500 per month for electricity,” he said. “Now I pay $1,500 a year.”

Because of these savings, the system will have paid itself off in about another year.

“The challenging thing about solar is the upfront cost,” Dee said. “You have to think long term.”

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.