On the Grid

Steel beams were delivered on June 19, and solar panels are expected to arrive by the end of the week for installation on this airport property.

Just off of a road behind the Monterey Regional Airport’s airstrip, a lone construction worker smoothes over a freshly poured concrete pad on a fenced-off sandy lot. A few feet away from him, a bundle of steel beams glitter in the sunlight.

“We’re so glad that those beams came in on time,” Airport Project Manager Chris Morello says. “We were getting nervous.”

That’s because this project, a 3-acre solar array, is on a tight timeline. Airport officials have been talking about going solar for nearly five years, and on May 28, the California Energy Commission approved a $3 million loan to the airport district. That leaves them with two months to finish the project before Aug. 1. That’s the date when Pacific Gas & Electric plans to implement a new formula for billing customers who also generate solar power.

“If we didn’t make July 31, we weren’t going to do the project,” says Airport General Manager Mike LaPier. “We’re threading a needle.”

The airport spends $280,000 a year on energy. Even though they’re closed from roughly 1am-4:30am, most lights and TSA equipment run 24/7, in keeping with federal regulations. The new solar panels, which are expected to generate nearly 1.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, will more than cover the airport’s electric bill. LaPier expects the airport to pay back the loan, at 1-percent interest, within 12 years.

Contractor OpTerra Energy is doing the installation on a site carefully selected to be out of the range that could distract control tower operators with glint and glare. Instead of rotating panels that track the sun – and generate more power – they’re using fixed panels, to make sure they mitigate the glare problem. Airport officials also chose to keep the project relatively small, on 3 acres of the airport’s 498 acres, because anything larger would have triggered a more extensive (and time-consuming) environmental review process.

That was one way to pick up the pace as far as securing the Energy Commission loan and getting the project built on time. But airport officials also enlisted the political muscle of Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, who helped the airport get in line for funding even after they’d already awarded all of their money for the year. “Normally we don’t push but it was so time-sensitive,” Morello says. “[Stone] helped us accelerate it.”

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