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Midsize Solar Installations Grow At Light Speed

Solar panels at the midsized Sunset Reservoir solar array in San Francisco.
Lauren Sommer for NPR
Solar panels at the midsized Sunset Reservoir solar array in San Francisco.

As Tim Nilsen steps into one of his barns outside Sacramento, Calif., hundreds of turkeys snap to attention.

Turkeys are the name of the game at Nilsen Farms. But his property is also serving up something else — solar energy for about 750 homes in the community.

That's because the property is also home to an 8-acre solar array — a field of shiny black panels. A lot of customers want solar, but for one reason or another, they would rather not have panels on their house, says Jim Burke, a program manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.


Burke says it became apparent that "there's really no reason why we had to climb on top of somebody's perfectly good roof and drill a hole in it. We could actually come out to a larger facility like this, [and] take advantage of the economies of scale."

Renewable power is on the rise across the country. But for states with ambitious clean energy goals like California, it isn't growing fast enough. That has them turning to a new kind of renewable project — midsized solar farms. Many are calling it the Goldilocks of renewable energy.

A 'Sweet Spot' In The Middle

Much like community-supported agriculture, the array in Sacramento is a community-supported solar project. Customers, many of whom are interested in the environmental benefits, pay an average of $11 more a month for electricity from these solar panels, which are only 30 miles from downtown Sacramento. The idea is catching on.

In the hills of San Francisco, officials and politicians recently turned on the brand new Sunset Reservoir solar array. It's the size of 12 football fields, which is not too big, but not too small.


That makes it just right for Arno Harris, the CEO of Recurrent Energy, the company that built the project.

"What we think really is the sweet spot is this place in the middle," he says.

Harris says it was tough at first to get people interested in a project this size. Most of the financing was going to huge solar farms that cover hundreds of acres.

"With those large projects, what you run into is that they take a really long time to deliver and there are all sorts of gotchas along the way," he says.

Avoiding The Obstacles Plaguing Larger Projects

Those gotchas have to do with a complex permitting process in California. It's an even longer process if the land is home to sensitive species like tortoises in the Mojave Desert.

Harris says midsized projects avoid those problems. They're built faster than large solar farms, and installation costs are still relatively cheap. The company is also working in Arizona and New Jersey, where interest in these "Goldilocks" solar farms is growing.

"There's definitely a lot of potential," says Julie Fitch, the director of the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission. It's the agency overseeing the state's renewable energy program. Fitch says when the state first passed its goal of reaching 20 percent renewable energy by 2010, utilities raced to sign contracts.

"Most of the focus has been on those large, centralized plants that also have implications for transmission because it takes a transmission line to deliver that large chunk of power to where people use it," she says.

"It is very challenging to get through the transmission process," says Chris Johns, the president of Pacific Gas and Electric, who says building miles of new power lines adds both time and cost.

"Many of the projects are taking years, and within that time frame, the construction piece is just a small percentage of that time," he says.

Johns says large solar farms aren't going away anytime soon, but midsize solar is on the rise, thanks to falling prices for solar panels.

California has launched a program to develop more of these solar projects, which will have short deadlines to get on line. That's because with a long-term goal of one-third renewable energy by 2020, the state is looking for solar energy that can move fast.

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