The Cambrian

Historic solar-panel project at Hearst Castle nears completion

State Park officials estimate that a solar-power project at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center parking lot should start providing electricity to the entire base-of-the-hill complex by mid-July if work wraps up on schedule.

Construction of the solar array began April 24, and according to Dan Falat, superintendent of the parks district that includes Hearst Castle, contractor Ecoplexus “has been very progressive, and has done an outstanding job of meeting their deadlines.”

One of the deadlines hit was having overhead panels in place by May 24.

Those target dates — tightly wedged between the spring/Easter break period and the start of peak summer tourist season — were crucial, Falat said, to reduce the inconvenience for visitors who park their vehicles at the Visitor Center before heading up to the hilltop by bus to tour the former estate of wealthy media magnate/art collector William Randolph Hearst.

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The solar array’s bonus for those visitors? Shade to shelter their vehicles parked below the panels.

Also, because the project removed the center rows of the tall street lamps — night lighting there now will come from downward-pointing LED lighting under the canopy — light pollution will be reduced somewhat and night sky conditions will be improved, Falat said.

Among other energy-aware attributes at the castle, the parking area also provides 14 charging stations for electric-powered vehicles, and tour buses are powered by natural gas.

The Visitor Center’s solar-array project is the first leased, power-purchase arrangement in a California State Parks unit, Falat said in April.

And putting it in didn’t cost the state a penny. California’s Department of General Services has done similar projects for other state departments.

At the end of the 25-year contract, Falat said, the “state has the option to renegotiate the agreement or have the contractor remove the system.”

“There is no upfront cost to the state,” which doesn’t own the solar array, he said. “It’s essentially a lease.”

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The system is designed to produce 1 million kilowatt hours per year.

State officials estimate that once the 1,812 solar units are complete and online the facility’s electrical bills could go down by as much $1 million over the life of the contract.

Falat said State Parks will pay Ecoplexus 11 cents per kilowatt hour for power produced by the solar panels. The district currently pays PG&E 15 cents per kilowatt hour in the winter and 20 cents in the summer.

The new grid-tied solar system is intended to provide all the electricity needed by the compound, which includes the district offices adjacent to the Visitor Center. However, “we will still be connected to PG&E,” Falat said, and would be charged by the utility for any power drawn from the grid.

“The amount produced by the solar array and the amount used from the grid will be averaged annually,” he said.

The project is “designed to have an annual net PG&E bill of zero.”

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