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Large solar project in eastern Kern would be developer's first for 'community choice' groups

Storage-Rendering1

This is a rendering of a photovoltaic solar array and battery project similar to the Aratina Solar Center proposed in Kern County.

A utility-scale solar developer from Los Angeles that's already spent more than $1 billion building projects in eastern Kern has signed its first agreement with coastal groups looking to leverage available land in the county's high desert to achieve ambitious renewable energy goals.

8minute Solar Energy's Aratina Solar Center would provide 250 megawatts of power, enough to power 93,000 homes, to a pair of "community choice" organizations that contract electricity on behalf of residential customers in the Monterey Bay and Silicon Valley areas.

The agreements represent a new and growing market for a company that's integrating large photovoltaic solar arrays with battery installations to provide sun power 24 hours a day at prices low enough to compete with natural gas-fired power plants.

LOCAL BENEFITS

Aratina, at an undisclosed cost estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, is expected generate $12 million in local tax revenue, $16 million in land payments and 300 construction jobs making between $31 and $75 per hour.

The project awaits an environmental review but is expected to become operational in 2023. It would be 8minute's ninth major investment in eastern Kern County, which the company deems nearly ideal for such projects.

"Kern County has some of the best solar irradiance in the state, available land, knowledgeable and collaborative landowners, and a strong support for renewable energy development from county and local stakeholders," the company's vice president of project development, Robbie Horwitz, said by email. Irradiance means flow of radiant energy over a given area.

MOTIVATED BUYERS

Power produced at Aratina would be divided between Monterey Bay Community Power Authority and Silicon Valley Clean Energy, whose customers want energy produced from renewable sources at the best possible price. Customers for 8minute's other local solar projects have been investor- and municipally owned electric power utilities.

The two groups are among an increasing number of so-called community choice aggregation organizations that function as an alternative to utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. The CCAs buy the power that travels on distribution infrastructure owned and operated by PG&E.

MBCP spokeswoman Shelly Whitworth said her organization hopes to accelerate adoption of renewable energy in California while also saving its customers money on their monthly electric bill.

WHY KERN

The group considered developing large solar projects in its own area, she said, but ran into land-use restrictions and high prospective costs. On the other hand, she said, the project in eastern Kern — 8minute won't say exactly where it's proposed to be built but its most recent project is in Cantil — scored high on MBCP's rating system.

"It’s a large project within California," she said. "8minute knows what they’re doing and they’re very familiar with Kern County.”

Girish Balachandran, the Silicon Valley group's CEO, added in a news release, “The Aratina Solar Center, complete with battery storage, will allow us to store and deliver solar power when our customers need it — well into the evening hours — reducing our reliance on carbon-emitting gas plants and moving us ever closer to a decarbonized grid.”

POSITIVE EXPERIENCE

8minute President and CEO Tom Buttgenbach said in the release that the company's partnership with CCAs has been a positive experience "giving us an opportunity to partner directly with communities to put more affordable, clean energy on the grid."

The company has developed some 1,700 megawatts of solar power in California. More than a third of that total in Kern. Other destinations for its energy investments include the Imperial Valley and Madera County.

Horwitz said the primary reason 8minute doesn't put such projects in the valley portion of Kern is the lack of transmission capacity for carrying electricity to population centers. 

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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