Photo: Charles Sharp pictured in front of the Frenchtown Inn tasting room.
Tucked away on 100 acres in the rural heart of north Yuba County, Frenchtown Inn opened two years ago catering to a diverse customer base of people looking for a quiet, relaxing weekend for farm stays and gatherings in the country. A barn converted into a wine tasting room overlooks a small serene lake frequented by egret and geese.
On the roof of the new wine tasting room, a sophisticated solar electrical system is quietly generating enough power to meet almost all of the inn’s needs without distracting from the tranquil ambiance of the rural setting.
“It’s quiet,” said Charles Sharp, the owner of Frenchtown Inn. “It doesn’t make any noise and that’s how it’s supposed to be. You don’t have to think about it. This is the best system you could ever have.”
Sharp says he is happy with his decision to hire a crew from Grass Valley-based business, California Solar Electric Company, to install the system on the roof of the tasting room. He says the choice to own a solar roof is a win-win for his wallet and for the planet.
The inn is now a power generator, feeding electricity back into the Pacific Gas & Electric Company grid system. Sharp took out a fixed rate bank loan to pay for the system, so he will enjoy immunity from seasonal spikes on his monthly utility bill. With electricity rates expected to increase in California, a predictable energy bill is another reason going solar appeals to Sharp. However, what are those to do who do not have solar panels on their property or the predictable sun that California offers? An option to keep the bills down used by many homeowners has been to utilize something like a Tara Energy promo code or use comparison sites to find the most competitive rates offered by various energy providers. For other business owners, they will have to rely on comparing different Business Utilities so they can continue to pay the cheapest utility offer for them, either that or pay a hefty price for the solar system installation.
“I don’t have fluctuating costs. It’s basically running the meter backward,” Sharp said.
A system that would take care of all the inn’s needs would typically require a large ground mount, but California Solar crews were able to install a state-of-the art solar electric system on the roof of the tasting room, without distracting guest’s views of the natural landscape. With ample power provided by the panels, Sharp will see a significant dent on the inn’s electrical bill.
Using powerful, super high efficient panels from San Jose-based company SunPower, the crew from California Solar was able to install far fewer panels than would be required for a system using conventional panels.
“Fewer panels means fewer components and connections,” said Martin Webb, California Solar’s Commercial Sales Manager. “Fewer components and connections means increased reliability.
“An added benefit of the roof system is it will shade a south-facing sunny roof that previously absorbed a lot of heat, which will help to reduce the need for air conditioning inside the tasting room,” said Webb.
Webb says the financial benefits of going solar are numerous like the obvious bill savings, federal tax credits that wipe out 30 percent of the cost of installation, and increased property values. But choosing renewable energy goes beyond monetary perks.
“What is not so obvious are the real world benefits and ripple effects of going solar,” said Martin.
Solar energy generated from Frenchtown Inn will stay in the local community, support local businesses, local jobs, and generate local tax revenue. Lower cost, cleaner and more efficient power, produced on-site, saves precious earth resources and reduces air pollution. When Frenchtown Inn produces more energy than it needs, excess power will flow back through the lines where it is needed by the neighborhood. Over time, savings will help fund much-needed capital improvements for the inn.
For Sharp, who cares deeply about the community he has called home for decades, the decision to go solar is one that makes sense.
“Let’s use the planet and resources in the best way we can,” he said. “We solve environmental problems by how we spend our resources. That’s how we’re going to change things.”
California Solar has served Gold Country for nearly 20 years. Learn more at californiasolarco.com.
Flames lashed 30-feet-high in the backfield of their Paradise home as Diana and Bill Toci rushed to pack their cars. They fled the Camp Fire with a small filing cabinet, a few paintings, some photos and, most importantly, family that included Diana’s father and sister, Oscar and Janet Deen.
They would arrive safely in Nevada City, with the help of Diana’s son, Lars Ortegren, and the kindness and generosity of a community.
On the morning of the fire, though, it was about escape. It was about running for their lives.
Diana and Bill left their home and headed first in the direction of Oscar, who was in a care home about a mile away. He was dressed with a bag packed, and once Diana had him in the car, she drove, frantically, yet cautiously out of town.
“I was driving and holding my dad’s wrist,” she said. “At one point he said, ‘Honey, you can let go of my hand now. You need that other hand for the steering wheel.’ For a minute there, I was a 16-year-old girl again. I was trying to sing to calm down. I was terrified.”
It was 8:30 in the morning “but black as black can be,” Diana said. “Except for the flames.”
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Out of harm ‘s way, and with a safe haven at the Northern Queen Inn, the Tocis and Deens were embraced by family and community.
“When I heard about how fast the fire was growing, and she was looking for a hotel room, I quickly started calling around,” Lars said.
“Lars has been splendid from the very beginning by rushing to get three rooms,” Diana said.
That included a room for Janet and her dog and cat.
Lars also put out the call on Facebook for a temporary place for his family to live. That call was overwhelmingly answered.
“I’m someone who grew up in Nevada County,” Lars said. “Most people (who responded) weren’t even people that I knew at all. There were people offering fully furnished houses.”
The hardship of loss was felt simultaneously with deep gratefulness.
“When you’re surrounded by family and friends, it dulls the pain,” Diana said. “It makes it seem not quite so raw.”
“This is an amazing city with generous strangers,” Lars said. “Lines that normally divide us, whether it’s income, race or political views, those lines were vaporized in this fire. There is a lot of human to human support.”
With so many generous people giving for the Camp Fire survivors, Cal Solar has become a mail and donation hub, uniting those who want to help.
“It’s amazing how quickly my inbox was full and my phone was ringing off the hook with people offering support in one way or another,” Lars said. “We live in a community that is really full of that community spirit. If this city was closer to Paradise, I would bet that a lot less people would be living in that Kmart parking lot.”
It all speaks to community spirit. To human spirit.
And back on that day of escape, something else remarkable happened.
As cars lined up, frightened and steering slowly towards safety, they were courteous.
“People were letting everybody in from the side streets, waiting patiently,” Diana said. “One in, then another. There was no police or fire department presence, so we were taking turns during the fire. It was a long wait until we turned on the main street. That really shows everybody’s humanity. Because everybody was panicked
Ana Barazza pictured in front of her solar array on her home in Penn Valley.
Recently moving from the Bay Area to Penn Valley, Omar and Ana Barazza were astounded with the cost of energy – especially the cost generated from our hot summer days.
Then they happened upon the California Solar Electric Company (Cal Solar) booth at the Thursday Night Market in Grass Valley where they gathered the information they had been looking for. “I was considering solar, and when I saw (Cal Solar) I had just received my PG&E bill,” Omar Barazza said. “This is the first time I’ve lived with air conditioning, so I was shocked.”
Barazza said he knew installing solar was something he wanted to do for a variety of reasons. “From everything I’ve read, the benefits related to the environment, cost savings …,” he said. “It was definitely something I was going to explore. I just didn’t know it would happen so quickly.”
Using a local business was also a consideration for Barazza. “I’m huge in using local businesses that other big local businesses use,” he said. “So when I go by a large business and I see what work trucks they have and people doing work, usually big companies do their due diligence.”
Barazza saw Cal Solar employees working at a storage outside of Lake Wildwood. “That’s one of the reasons I chose them,” he said. “Then, coincidentally, I saw them at the Thursday Night Market.”
“Right off the bat, Travis and I hit it off pretty well,” Barazza said. “He’s not the typical salesman. I’ve gotten other estimates for other jobs and I dread the sales pitch. With Travis, it didn’t feel that way. I felt like I had a friend over. It didn’t feel like a sales pitch. I like that.”
This friendliness is how Barazza describes working with everyone at Cal Solar.
“Everybody who helped me, I was so impressed,” he said. “The team was knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and professional. Travis, Angelica … They were really good. Ash, he was awesome. I couldn’t be happier with the whole process.”
PG&E was damned Tuesday by Placerville city leaders, with the City Council unanimously voting to send a vociferous “letter of condemnation” to the power company that turned off the lights Sunday, Oct. 14 as an ostensible wildland fire prevention tactic. Most of El Dorado County remained in the dark throughout the following day, with matters made more contentious as some parts of town had electricity and others did not.
Council members and city administrators during Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting pulled no punches, saying that PG&E used the local area as a “guinea pig” for its first-ever power safety shutdown, unfairly targeting Placerville and its surrounds as “ground zero” for the exercise.
And that inaugural Public Safety Power Shutoff was a decided failure, the City Council indicated during the meeting that PG&E had been invited to attend but reportedly declined.
PG&E representatives apparently told Placerville officials they were busy with their own meetings in the wake of the controversial power shutdown but said they would try to come to the Nov. 27 City Council meeting to address local concerns.
After the plug was pulled in several north state counties that Sunday, most of the West Slope of El Dorado County was without electrical power throughout Monday, with traffic lights on Highway 50 through Placerville completely dark after their batteries died following four hours of flashing red.
The resulting gridlock in town was a nightmare, council members agreed, with council member Patty Borelli “thanking God” that no emergency occurred where the traffic snarl prevented someone from receiving life saving help.
And were it not for the “heroic” efforts of Doug Veerkamp Engineering that sent its crews to service city generators at the wastewater treatment plant with diesel fuel, Placerville very well could be looking at hefty fines from the state due to sewage entering the creek below, officials said during Tuesday’s meeting.
With Placerville City Manager Cleve Morris out of town in Texas and Mayor Wendy Thomas also away when the power was shut off, city staff who jumped in to handle the emergencies borne of PG&E’s power play also performed with professionalism and creativity, the council and crowd were told Tuesday.
At one point, because the key to City Hall was with Morris on vacation in Texas, acting city manager Pierre Rivas figured out which employee might have a duplicate (Bob Pyne of Public Works) and managed to open up for business Monday.
“Pierre Rivas did an exceptional job,” began Morris. “He remained cool and collected and worked wherever he could get in. He happened to be at work Sunday (when the power went out)” and so began dealing with the situation almost immediately, Morris said.
The city manager added that city staff including Steve Youel, Jim Ortega and Rick Ferreira also are praiseworthy for their quick action to keep the city running, particularly in the wake of El Dorado Irrigation District issuing a warning that the city water system was going down.
“They made sure all the city (backup) generators had fuel,” recounted Morris. “They got hold of Veerkamp and they were able to service our generators including the two at the wastewater treatment plant.
“One of those two is on its last legs and if (Veerkamp and city staff) hadn’t been able to keep them running the city would have been facing massive penalties from the state.”
The city manager said colleagues have often quipped that he should “never go on vacation because something is sure to happen.”
“It appears that this time it was true,” smiled Morris.
He also commended the Police Department for “dealing with emergencies that occurred” and added that despite little or no warning from PG&E that the juice was going to be cut, the city “learned something from this.”
“I don’t think we had the proper warning,” said Morris, who indicated that PG&E officials have told Placerville authorities that the state Office of Emergency Services was supposed to have warned the city about the impending power shutoff. That didn’t happen, according to city staff.
“We were told that OES was supposed to notify us and we’re looking into whether that’s true,” said the city manager. He said once Caltrans officials were notified that the traffic signals on Highway 50 through town were out, Caltrans staff told the city they were in the dark about the shutoff.
With the south side of Main Street blessed with power throughout PG&E’s two-day experiment and the north side staying dark, business owners on both sides of the street mulled the unfairness of some making extra money being able to serve “overflow” customers and others making none at all.
City Councilman Mark Acuna, who worked several years for PG&E, found himself in a unique position during Tuesday’s meeting — but he, too, said he found his former employer’s actions questionable and ultimately in error.
After receiving praise from City Manager Morris and from Mayor Thomas for acting as liaison between PG&E and city staff during the two days, Acuna lightened things up by saying, “Cleve was in Texas so we couldn’t get the keys, Dave Warren (city finance director) was camping so we couldn’t get any money and the city attorney was out of town so we couldn’t sue anybody.”
Acuna described the gridlock at the three traffic signals resulting from the dead lights as “Apple Hill on steroids” and he urged that the city continue its protests to PG&E so that the power giant will understand just how poorly its actions were perceived.
The councilman added that he thinks the Police Department, Public Works and Caltrans should come up with a mutual plan for when the power goes out and the traffic signals go down.
“Eighteen hours without functioning signals is just not an option,” said Acuna, getting nods of agreement from fellow council members.
Councilwoman Patty Borelli reminded the panel that she has “been harping on this for years,” referring to her frequent warnings that the city needs to be better prepared to handle emergency situations.
“It’s a huge lesson … and thank God there wasn’t a horror … where anyone lost their lives.”
Councilman John Clerici angrily posited that PG&E was not responding to a legitimate fire danger emergency, despite press releases to that effect mentioning high winds predicted to sweep through the area. The possibility of wind-downed trees and limbs onto power lines, potentially sparking fires, prompted the shutdown, PG&E has said.
“It wasn’t about fires — it was about keeping PG&E stockholders happy,” charged Clerici, who mentioned that the power mogul “got sued” over hugely destructive fires last year in Sonoma County and other coastal and inland areas.
“Why do it here?” he asked, questioning PG&E’s choice of shutdowns in the relatively sparsely populated areas of El Dorado and other nearby counties. “They did this to make a statement … and screw some folks.
“This cost a lot of people a lot of money,” continued Clerici. In addition to those stores that stayed closed during the outage, “some businesses had to pay their employees after having to send them home,” he pointed out.
The city, too, likely lost money due to the power shutdown extending into a workday, said Clerici, who added the municipality could have been looking at even more loss had the wastewater treatment plant failed.
“Thank God for Doug Veerkamp — he saved us tens of thousands of dollars.”
Clerici, who uttered an expletive in describing PG&E’s power shutdown, told the Tuesday gathering at Town Hall, “I don’t think we need to be particularly nice to PG&E” as he urged his fellows to continue to protest.
“We may be tilting at windmills … because PG&E is powerful,” the councilman added. “But they did this — this was them screwing us.
“Turn up the outrage.”
Supporting products from solar farms is one way you can support clean energy!
The “solar apiary“: the innovative combination of solar farm plus wildflower plantings plus beekeeping plus marketing direct to consumers was a neat way to communicate one of the powerful benefits of clean energy—namely, that safe, clean energy production can coexist with, and sometimes even enhance, food production.
Now Fresh Energy, the non-profit group which helped make that initiative happen, has also been helping to launch another value-added byproduct of solar farm development. Milk & Honey Ciders in St. Joseph, Minnesota, has just released “Solar Sweet Farm Cider”—a combination of Golden Russet & Kingston Black Apples infused with honey produced from beehives on the solar apiary right next door. The beehives are managed by Bare Honey, on a solar farm developed by IPS Solar—a company which insists on installing abundant pollinator habitats on all of the solar farms that it develops.
It’s all a very cool story. Having followed the push for bird and bee friendly solar and wind for years, it’s encouraging now to see ways that consumers can get directly involved in supporting such moves. For us solar energy advocates, it also provides a neat way to encapsulate one of the competitive advantages of renewables over fossil fuels. Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine anyone marketing a cider that’s made from honey produced right next to a fracking well…
California Solar is excited to offer the MPOWER PACE program that has recently arrived in Nevada County. This new financing option opens the door for more Nevada County residents to achieve energy independence and save money at the same time.
“At California Solar, we are always looking for the best solar financing options for our customers and we’ve been waiting for MPOWER to come to Nevada County for a long time. Not only is it a great option for using alternative energy to save money, but the people who work at MPOWER are dedicated to the utmost service and education throughout the entire loan process. It’s a great way to help people OWN their power instead of just renting it.”
– Rob Totoonchie, Residential Sales Manager