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Midsize Solar Installations Grow At Light Speed

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Midsize Solar Installations Grow At Light Speed

Energy

Midsize Solar Installations Grow At Light Speed

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR news.

Renewable power is increasingly popular in the U.S., and production is up. But for states with ambitious clean energy goals, like California, supply isn't growing fast enough.

Lauren Sommer of member station KQED reports that to meet their needs, energy companies are now turning to mid-sized solar farms.

(Soundbite of turkeys)

Mr. TIM NILSEN (Owner, Nilsen Farms): Look out, guys.

LAUREN SOMMER: As Tim Nilsen steps into one of his barns outside of Sacramento, California, hundreds of turkeys snap to attention.

Mr. NILSEN: These are the heavy toms. They average 45, 46 pounds.

SOMMER: Turkeys are the name of the game here at Nilsen Farms, but elsewhere on the property...

(Soundbite of metal chains)

Mr. JIM BURKE (Senior Product Services Coordinator, Sacramento Municipal Utility District): You're looking at about a solar array that's about 8 acres in size and serves about 750 homes in Sacramento.

SOMMER: Jim Burke is with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. He's standing next to a field of shiny black solar panels. Burke says a lot of customers want solar but don't want panels on their house.

Mr. BURKE: And it became apparent to us that, wait a minute, 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, take advantage of the economies of scale.

SOMMER: Much like community-supported agriculture, this is a community-supported solar project. Customers 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.

Unidentified Group: Three, two, one.

Mr. BURKE: Flip that switch.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BURKE: It's live.

SOMMER: In the hills of San Francisco, officials and politicians are turning 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 of Recurrent Energy, the company that built the project.

Mr. ARNO HARRIS (CEO, Recurrent Energy): What we think really is the sweet spot is this place in the middle.

SOMMER: Harris says, at first, most of the financing was going to huge solar farms that cover hundreds of acres.

Mr. HARRIS: 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.

SOMMER: 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.

Ms. JULIE FITCH (Director, Energy Division, California Public Utilities Commission): There's definitely a lot of potential.

SOMMER: Julie Fitch is with the California Public Utilities Commission, 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.

Ms. FITCH: Most of the focus has been on those large, centralized plants that also have implications for transmission because, you know, it takes a transmission line to deliver that large chunk of power to where people use it.

Mr. CHRIS JOHNS (President, Pacific Gas and Electric): It is very challenging to get through the transmission process.

SOMMER: Chris Johns is the president of Pacific Gas and Electric. He says building miles of new power lines adds both time and cost.

Mr. JOHNS: Many of the projects are taking years, and within that time frame, the construction piece is just a small percentage of that time.

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

California has launched a program to develop more of these solar projects, which will have short deadlines to get online. 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.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

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