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Santa Rosa Chick-fil-A solar microgrid part of distributed-energy movement amid California grid issues

In the middle of a season of potential wildfire-driven planned power outages, Santa Rosa’s Chick-fil-A location soon will become one of three among its 2,700 stores in the nation to install a solar system called a microgrid.

A few years ago, franchise owner Chris Medford requested that the corporate office provide the ability to keep the lights on at his Mendocino Avenue location when Pacific Gas & Electric calls for public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) during red flag warnings.

Medford gave three distinct reasons why he pursued the venture with SolMicroGrid, an energy services company based in the Atlanta area that installs and services these backup power solutions.

“First, being a good steward to the environment is our primary goal,” he said, adding a way to avoid being “vulnerable to threats of PG&E shutoffs” as another. “We also wanted to prove that it’s possible.”

The College Park, Georgia-based fast food company, which specializes in chicken sandwiches, went for the idea. The Sonoma County installation is scheduled within the next few weeks after Stockton’s. The third installation is located in San Diego.

Medford, who has worked for the company for a decade and has run his franchise for the last six years, estimates he’ll save 40- to 50% on his PG&E bill averaging $20,000 a month. The kitchen runs on both gas and electric.

When the sun is shining during the day, the microgrid system through solar panels and a computer platform uses, captures and stores the energy. When the power is out, the restaurant continues to operate with the help of a generator. The microgrid operates as a centralized system and stands alone.

“Our California operators have been requesting help with the rising cost of energy,” said Stephanie Armistead, a manager for Chick-fil-A’s corporate sustainability program. “At a moment’s notice, Chick-fil-A operators might have to lock the freezers, purchase dry ice and decide if they need to shut the restaurant down when high winds damage power lines or a heat wave puts too much stress on the existing grid.”

Since the pandemic, much of the eatery’s receipts come from customers using the drive-thru, carry out and third-party delivery — but Medford hopes to advance into more in-store dining.

“When the power goes out, the system kicks in and keeps them in business,” said Matt Ward, a SolMicroGrid co-founder who has a civil engineering background.

SolMicroGrid, which formed in 2019, uses photovoltaic panels that harvest energy on sunny days and store the excess power in the system for other times.

The Chick-fil-A franchise pays the utility services company each month from the portion of savings it receives. The installation is paid for through a capital investment SolMicroGrid received from Morgan Stanley. The company declined to disclose that capital investment or an example of what a 5,000-square-foot facility would cost for installation.

“We’re truly wanting to help the Earth,” SolMicroGrid co-founder Joyce Bone told the Business Journal.

The company is attempting to fill a unique niche for smaller operations like Chick-fil-A’s 5,000-square-foot stores. Many commercial operations that elect to go with solar-powered microgrid solutions are commonly larger facilities, the energy purveyor co-founders noted.

“This new system will allow us to reduce energy costs while helping us continue to serve our guests even through power outages,” Chick-fil-A Stockton store operator April Farage said in a statement. “This solution will allow us to provide a place where guests in the community can convene, enjoy a meal and plug in when power may not be available to their homes.”

In addition, the Stockton location operator said it saves on utility bills, which during the hot Central Valley summer, can increase by 70%.

Suite taste of green energy

Hospitality businesses seeking alternative energy options stretch across the North Bay.

The Marin Suites Hotel announced Sept. 27 its completion in August of a three-year project to install a solar-power system. The lodging establishment managed by Springboard Hospitality stated it’s the first hotel in Marin County to run fully on clean energy. Its electricity, air conditioning, heat, laundry service and swimming pool all operate on solar power.

Management of the 101-room, all-suite boutique hotel, a fixture in Corte Madera for about 60 years, has figured the energy solution will reduce its carbon footprint in an amount that equals the planting of more than 80 acres of trees and offsets 15 million miles driven by the average vehicle, the hotel management stated.

General Manager Cindy Reinhart estimated the hotel would save about 40% on its energy costs with the system including 453 solar panels, Further, she figured the $100,000 installation managed by Clean Power of San Jose would pay for itself in its return on investment within five years.

“It always takes a concerted effort over a long period of time to complete large solar systems like this one on commercial buildings. Marin Suites Hotel was steadfast in their approach and willingness to work through challenges,” Clean Solar CEO Randy Zechman said in a statement.

More businesses come on board

Woody Hastings, an energy program manager with the Santa Rosa-based Climate Center, said the commercial business market is experiencing a bit of a surge in alternative energy systems to operate locations.

“The interest in this has been happening over the last few years. But we’ve been seeing more of it as businesses recognize the value of deploying solar. The cost of batteries has come down, and (the systems) help them make it through power shutdowns,” Hastings told the Business Journal. “Installing these microgrids are becoming doable, affordable and more important to business.”

These “microgrids” serve as small-scale generators of power that allow businesses to harness the energy without relying solely on the state power grid. The separation from the larger grid is referred to as “islanding.”

“It’s not at all surprising that Chick-fil-A and other businesses are looking seriously into (the alternative energy sourcing) as it becomes a more and more practical and affordable thing,” he said.

Hastings has noticed many more Sonoma County businesses and entities covering their parking lots with solar carports. He mentioned the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and Kaiser to name a few that have done so in the last few years.

California leads the nation in the creation of 1.3 million solar energy projects to produce 11 megawatts. One megawatt equals the amount of energy produced by 10 vehicles.

About 15 years ago, the bar chart of solar projects that started in the state appeared almost non-existent in terms of a measurable number of projects. According to a consortium of agencies serving the California Solar Initiative, the state has experienced an upward track of businesses and residents signing on to the alternative means of energy since 2006.

But the need for ways to power our homes and businesses becomes more critical as climate change and state regulations prompt the upgrades.

As the Business Journal reported on Sept. 7, the 2022 California energy building code is being updated to include requirements for solar panels with large batteries to be installed on new commercial and high-rise apartment buildings.

The new regulations represent California’s mission to meet a carbon neutral goal by 2045. But environmental groups — stunned by the growing evidence of negative climate change impacts — insist the pace should speed up.

A group of state lawmakers led by Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, sent a letter Sept. 29 to the California Public Utility District supporting a proposal by the solar advocacy group Coalition for Community Solar Access to kick start community projects using the alternative energy source in the state. The group wants to see a focus on disadvantaged communities.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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