Aerojet’s solar makeover

The rocket company greens its image with a big clean-energy project

Scott Neish, president of Aerojet’s parent company, GenCorp, at the site of a proposed new solar-energy field.

Scott Neish, president of Aerojet’s parent company, GenCorp, at the site of a proposed new solar-energy field.

Photo By anne stokes

Aerojet still makes really cool rockets, like the ones on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Find out more at And check SMUD’s one-stop site for all things green at

Aerojet, the local defense-industry contractor with a famously toxic past, plans to convert 20 acres of its Superfund cleanup land into a superclean electricity-producing solar field this fall.

Solar Power Inc. of Roseville will install the 3.5 megawatt array, capable of generating 5 to 10 percent of Aerojet’s power and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions to the Sacramento area by 4,200 tons each year. The solar field on the southeast corner of the Rancho Cordova campus will be one of the largest centralized photovoltaic installations in the United States.

“We have a tremendous amount of land—about 12,000 acres,” said Aerojet spokeswoman Linda Cutler. “Additionally, we are a large user of power. It just seemed like a logical project.”

Solar Power Inc. spokesman Mike Anderson said the project will have little impact on the land, since the array’s supporting posts will simply be driven into the ground rather than mounted in concrete footing. “All the flora and fauna will be undisturbed,” said Anderson.

The ease of installation means the site will quickly transform from an expanse of sun-baked grass to a field of huge reflective panels that Anderson said will appear to float above the Earth. Frames and steel poles for the array will go up in August; 18,000 silicon-celled panels will be mounted in September. By October, SPI will coordinate with SMUD to hook up the electrical system.

The array will consist of 12 single-axis trackers that will pivot to follow the sun’s daily arc through the sky. At dusk, the trackers will return to an east-facing position where they will wait for the morning light. The mounted panels will harness the sun’s energy and send direct-current power to a bank of inverters that will feed into Aerojet’s power supply.

Workers are currently surveying and grading the White Rock Road site, which has been cordoned off from the public for 50 years. The location was chosen due to its availability, as well as its proximity to existing power lines. Torn up by dredging operations during the 19th-century gold rush, long before the company acquired it, the land provided a buffer for the government contractor’s property but was never suitable for structures.

Aerojet further damaged the land in the 1970s by dumping hazardous waste throughout its campus. When the state discovered the company was releasing substances including rocket propellant that contained perchlorate, a chemical that may cause thyroid dysfunction according to the Food and Drug Administration, it ordered a cleanup. But the subsequent water treatment actually spread the contamination, sending a plume of polluted water into surrounding communities’ underground supplies and landing the Rancho Cordova campus on the Superfund list.

Scott Neish, president of Aerojet’s parent company, GenCorp, was aware of the company’s history when he moved to Sacramento in 2003. A river-rafting enthusiast and outdoorsman, Neish said he was bothered by the company’s past actions. The solar project, he said, represents a new direction for the organization.

“It has to make good business sense,” said Neish. “But we also think it is part of being a good corporate citizen. And using sustainable resources contributes to sustainable business.”

Neish began inquiring about the feasibility of using solar power in Sacramento shortly after arriving from Seattle. “When I first arrived, I was told it wasn’t financially viable,” said Neish. “I said, ‘Keep looking into it.’”

In early 2007, he formed a strategy group to further investigate the possibility. By 2008, the combination of increased solar technology efficiency, lower cost and government incentives resulted in a green light for the solar installation.

Now, a portion of the power generated by the solar array will flow to facilities built to reverse the contamination caused years ago. Each day, Aerojet pumps and treats 19 million gallons of water in numerous groundwater-treatment facilities. The goal is to ensure the water has acceptable maximum levels of perchlorate and other volatile chemicals, under federal and state guidelines.

“It would be a whole lot more exciting if they didn’t contaminate Rancho Cordova’s drinking water to begin with,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro of Environment California. “That said, better this than doing twice the harm by drawing from fossil-fuel-heavy grid electricity to clean up their mess. At least the process will be cleaner.”

The extensive remediation project contributes to huge power bills for Aerojet, as well as taxing SMUD’s grid. A substantial cost savings (Cutler estimated it would be in the several-million-dollar range over the panels’ 25-year lifetime), along with state-mandated targets for greenhouse-gas reduction set by Assembly Bill 32, helped Aerojet make the choice to switch from energy guzzling to energy efficiency.

Because of its partnership with SPI, which will sell power back to the company, Aerojet has an assured source of long-term, low-cost renewable energy, Neish said. The panels are designed to last 25 years, but may continue capturing and converting power even longer, depending on how they hold up over time.

“Solar power is a no-brainer investment for both California homeowners and businesses and is always something to applaud,” said Del Chiaro. “When it comes to large businesses, the bigger the solar investment, the better.

With renewable-energy targets of its own to reach, SMUD has actively facilitated Aerojet’s solar endeavor. In addition to providing $15 million in financial incentives to SPI over the lifetime of the project, SMUD will also operate “net metering” for Aerojet, which will allow the company to send excess electricity generated during the day or in the summer back into the electrical grid. Aerojet can then tap into that excess supply when it is not generating as much power, such as at night or during the winter, explained SMUD spokeswoman Dace Udris.

Del Chiaro applauded SMUD’s efforts at encouraging renewable energy. “SMUD has been an American pioneer when it comes to solar power,” she said. “That said, Sacramento is no longer the No. 1 place for solar power,” Del Chiaro explained, adding that San Francisco, San Diego and even Fresno have outpaced Sacramento. “SMUD can and should do more to encourage more businesses like Aerojet as well as more homes and small businesses to go solar.”

The clean-energy benefits of the solar array are equal to eliminating the pollution caused by driving the average car 8 million miles, according to Aerojet. Measured another way, the same amount of pollution could be offset by planting 976,520 trees. And the project also has the potential to encourage other area businesses to follow suit with their own solar investments.

“Aerojet is hardly the first company to invest in solar power,” said Del Chiaro. “But they are providing a powerful example to other area businesses that investing in solar power is both good for the environment and good for the bottom line.”

Cutler believes Aerojet is ahead of the sustainability game.

“One of the things that all companies are going to have to look at is compliance with AB 32,” she said. “We have looked at that and feel as though we have already reduced our carbon footprint, and this will reduce it even further.”

And if something other than “toxic waste” springs to mind when community members hear “Aerojet,” even better.

“Understandably, looking back, the image is not so great,” said Neish. “It’s a first step for us. It is a big step.”