Merced County is a little greener now that a new solar field became operational Tuesday.
Several county officials were on hand to switch on the 1.4 megawatt solar array, which will be used to power correctional facilities along Sandy Mush Road. The solar panels are located behind the John Latorraca Correctional Center.
It's estimated that the setup will save the county millions of dollars over the next few years.
Because the county is situated in one of the best areas of the country for solar access, operating costs will be significantly lowered at the correctional facilities, said Richard Schwarz, Merced County's assistant public works director.
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"The purpose of this project is independence," Schwarz said. "Independence from ever-increasing electric utility costs, which in turn, reduces the expense to all tax payers in the county."
The Board of Supervisors approved a contract with Siemens — a company that specializes in energy technology — in 2010 to design and construct the array and issued another contract to Siemens to maintain and operate the array for the next five years, Schwarz said.
"Over the next 25 years, this array is projected to save approximately $14 million in electric utility costs, which is a conservative estimate," he said. "Over the next five years, the county will receive solar production rebates of $1.5 million."
The upgrade is one of several aimed at reducing the cost of running county facilities, Schwarz said.
Savings from the solar development will be deposited into a fund for other capital improvement projects across the county, which may include future energy upgrades.
Board of Supervisors Chairman John Pedrozo expects similar projects to become more common not only for government use, but also private and commercial.
This project is the first of its kind for the county, Pedrozo said. "I'm sure there will be more to come," he added.
It's possible that inmate labor can be used to help maintain the solar setup, but that has yet to be figured out, Sheriff Mark Pazin said.
The solar project is a good fit for the site, he noted. "This is a natural setting for these solar panels," Pazin said. "This part of the acreage can't really be used for anything else, so it's environmentally sound."
The site's 6,272 solar panels are expected to offset 70 percent of the electrical costs of the correctional facilities during peak rate hours, Schwarz said.
No general fund money was used for the project — which cost $8.4 million, including design and construction. The work was paid for by tobacco securitization funds designated for improvements to county facilities.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.