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SEBASTOPOL – Sebastopol-based Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery is finally realizing a longtime goal to reduce its carbon footprint by offsetting all of its electricity use with solar energy. Installation begins this month on a 586-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system at the company’s processing facility on Highway 116. When completed in late summer or early fall, the system is expected to generate 834,998 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, saving the company more than $1.5 million in utility costs over 10 years.

Redwood Hill Farm is financing its $2.9 solar million project with a 10-year loan through Exchange Bank.

“For 10 years, our loan payments will be slightly higher than our monthly utility bills were, but after that the electricity will be free,” said Ms. Bice.

A one-time 30 percent federal tax credit grant of $900,000 and another $500,000 in rebates through the California Solar Initiative over a five-year period will bring the project’s final net cost to $1.5 million.

Redwood Hill Farm did have to navigate a few obstacles to bring the solar project to fruition. Originally located on the family’s dairy farm on Thomas Road, the company relocated to the former Vacu Dry apple processing plant in 2003. The company invested in remodeling the building to suit its creamery operations and adopted numerous efficiency measures to address the energy intensive nature of food and dairy production.

Ms. Bice initially began looking into putting solar electricity on the Vacu Dry facility in 2006. One of her first challenges was learning that the utility account and meter associated with the processing facility belonged strictly to the property owner.

“Technically we weren’t even a utility customer, so before we could start a system, we had to contract with PG&E to have our own meter put in,” Ms. Bice said, a process that lead to several months of red tape and cost the company $100,000.

Next, the solar project required not only obtaining the permission of the property owner, SonomaWest Holdings Inc., but also negotiating an extended property lease to cover the life of the solar system, typically 20 to 25 years. Adding nearly two acres of solar panels to the aging processing facility further revealed the need to tear off and install a new membrane roof.

“And of course all of this takes negotiations and lawyers on top of day-to-day life and running a business,” Ms. Bice said. “It’s been challenging but not so terrible that we didn’t want to do it.”

A solar hot water system installed at the family dairy a few years earlier cut propane usage by 75 percent. Now that the federal tax grant and lower pricing have made solar PV more affordable, Ms. Bice plans to add solar electric systems to the dairy and her home as well.

The 42-year-old family-owned company employs 45 people and produces organic goat milk products including artisan cheeses, yogurt and kefir from goats bred and raised on its own local dairy. Due to a thriving yet relatively small customer base for its niche products, the company must cover a large geographic area to distribute its products.

“Like a lot of people, we’re concerned about climate change. We’ve always been concerned about how much energy we’re using to make our products,” said Jennifer Bice, the company’s owner and cheese maker. “We’d love to be able to ship our products by train, but we don’t see a solution to this yet. Switching our whole creamery to solar will help mitigate the fact that we have to transport our products to distant areas.”

Redwood Hill Farm contracted with One Sun Inc., a Sebastopol solar company formed out of Warren Brown Construction, to design and install the solar system. One Sun has designed and installed large photovoltaic systems for clients throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California, including the city of Santa Rosa and several Sonoma County wineries.

One Sun Inc. is currently installing a 362-kilowatt solar system at the Manzana Products Inc. apple processing plant on Green Valley Road.

In addition to practically being a neighbor, One Sun tends to specify American-made equipment for its solar systems, a fact that appealed to Redwood Hill Farm. The 2,548 solar modules to be installed at the creamery were produced by Siliken Renewable Energy Inc. at its manufacturing facility in Carlsbad. IronRidge, a company located in Willits, produced the racking system selected to mount the solar arrays.

“We like to promote American-made products and local companies. We’re of the same mindset,” said Peter Renfro, general manager of One Sun. “We’re pretty proud to have been chosen to do this project. This is certainly one of biggest installations in Sonoma County.”

For more information, go to www.redwoodhill.com.