Expansive solar system

Gridley packaging plant basks in the sunshine

Brad Stapleton, president of Stapleton-Spence Packing Co., in front of part of the largest solar water-heating system in the state.

Brad Stapleton, president of Stapleton-Spence Packing Co., in front of part of the largest solar water-heating system in the state.

Photo By dugan gascoyne

Last month there was a ribbon-cutting, grip-and-grin, pass-the-check photo-op at a food processing plant in Gridley marking the installation of the largest solar water-heating system in the state.

At that ceremony the Stapleton-Spence Packing Co. was awarded a $467,000 check issued by Pacific Gas and Electric. Combined with another $200,000 in federal subsidies, the total cost of the $800,000 system was nearly covered. And with an expected annual energy-cost savings of $20,000, all expenses should be recouped within the three years. And those yearly savings will continue to add up over the life of the system.

Not a bad investment.

The project is the result of the California Solar Initiative, a $2.5 billion incentive program to promote solar development of both electricity and water heating. The CSI program is funded by the state’s gas and electric ratepayers; the rebate checks are handed out locally by PG&E.

In 2007 Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 1470, which created the $250 million incentive program to try to replace the annual use of 585 therms of natural gas by 2017. That number roughly translates to about 200,000 solar water-heating systems in homes and businesses.

The initiative could rekindle the state’s solar hot-water market, which was actually booming three decades ago following the 1970s oil embargo. In 1978, San Diego County become the first in the nation to pass a building ordinance requiring the use of solar domestic water-heating systems in all new houses constructed where natural gas was not available. Most of those systems also contained photovoltaic cells that produced the power to run the water heater pumps.

On Oct. 1, 1980, the ordinance was expanded to include those areas with natural-gas supplies. Solar energy appeared to have a bright future.

But just a month later, Ronald Reagan was elected president and promptly ordered the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House removed. And as the sting of the oil embargo was forgotten, San Diego County eventually ditched its solar water-heater mandate.

Jump ahead 30 years: An employee reached by phone at the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use last week said he had never heard of the solar water-heater requirement. But the CSI may be the dawning of a new solar age.

Brad Stapleton is the president of the Stapleton-Spence Packing Co. His father, Jerry, co-founded the business 1951 in San Jose, where it still has offices. The company moved to Gridley in 1998, where today it processes and packs prunes, purees, juices, nuts and other dried fruits, and sends them across the nation and to 30 countries.

Stapleton said the idea for the solar system was actually brought to him by Freeman Ford, the founder of FAFCO, a Chico-based solar water-heating company. That company began building solar water heaters for swimming pools in 1969. According to its website, in 1998 the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory asked FAFCO to help develop affordable solar systems for residential water heaters.

“I had known [FAFCO founder] Freeman Ford for a few years, and when we came upon some support money from California Solar Initiative and some federal money, we went ahead,” said Stapleton, who lives and spends most of his working hours in San Jose. “FAFCO was looking for a showcase kind of project, and this is it.”

The 20,000 square feet of solar panels are spread across the huge packaging plant’s roof. Water from a nearby well is pumped into a 13,000 gallon water storage tank. From there it is dispersed into the panels, where it runs through polymer pipes before heading into two 600-horsepower boilers.

“The water comes in at about 55 degrees,” Stapleton said. “It has to be heated to 210 degrees. The solar panels provide an intermediate step and increase the temperature by 30 to 40 degrees or about 25 percent of what’s needed.”

That 25 percent increase provides the $20,000 to $30,000 annual savings in natural-gas costs. He said the system, which was installed by another Chico-based company, BCM Construction, should last about 40 years.

“It is tubing basically with a pump,” he said. “The repairs are pretty simple.”

He said actually qualifying for and then getting the system, however, was not that simple.

“I was sitting with a guy from Gov. [Jerry] Brown’s office and he asked why more companies weren’t doing this, and I told him, ‘Well, 20 months ago we did the first bit of paper work.’ And he said, ‘Oh.’”

Stapleton noted the significance of the project’s being built and installed by local companies.

“You know, there is a really neat web of businesses here in the North State,” he said. “Area locals seem to respect the environment and are very aware of the fish and wildlife and nature. It’s a great place.”