Let the Sun Shine In!

This November, ACS member Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery found itself in the spotlight for something other than its celebrated goat cheeses, yogurts, and kefirs. The Sebastopol, California-based company installed an incredible 2,500 solar panels over two acres of roof space to offset its energy consumption – moving one step closer to owner Jennifer Lynn Bice’s vision for a carbon neutral operation.

The 586-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system was installed at Redwood Hill’s creamery, located several miles from its farm. The system is the realization of Bice’s vision for a company that treats the environment with as much respect as it does the animals that produce milk for its products. Bice’s goal was to offset the environmental impact and financial costs of Redwood Hill’s wide distribution system (because goat milk products represent a smaller niche of the market, the company must distribute across the country) while demonstrating a long-term commitment to sustainability.

The process of developing Redwood Hill’s solar system began in 2006, and it ultimately took four years from conception to completion. Securing financing was one of the most important steps in the process. Luckily, with strong cash flow and no existing debt, Bice was able to secure a ten-year loan for $2.9 million from Exchange Bank, a local banking partner. The loan was designed so that Redwood Hill’s monthly payments would be approximately the same as its past monthly energy bills — an affordable option that other companies exploring a solar installation should consider. Upon completion of the project in 2010, Redwood Hill received approximately $900,000 in federal tax incentives and rebates, and will receive nearly $500,000 in incentives from the California Solar Initiative over five years – ultimately reducing the outstanding loan balance by half.

With funding secured, there were still several hurdles to clear before Redwood Hill’s solar panels could be installed. As a tenant on a much larger property, Redwood Hill shared an electric meter with other companies and did not have its own account with the local utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric. A new electric meter assigned exclusively to Redwood Hill had to be installed at a cost of approximately $80,000. In addition, the creamery’s aging roof needed replacement before the heavy solar panels could be installed. The new roof can withstand the weight of 2,500 solar panels, and it should outlive the solar system, which is viable for at least 25 years. Bice also worked with the creamery’s property owner to extend Redwood Hill’s lease to 25 years, to match the life of the solar system.

Bice reached out to Sonoma-based One Sun, Inc. to design and install the solar system on the creamery roof. The installation began in July 2010 and was completed in November. When ACS spoke with Bice this March, she reported that – despite foggy days with limited sunlight – the solar panels were producing between 30-50% of the creamery’s energy. This percentage will increase dramatically in the summer months. Ultimately, Bice hopes the panels will produce 2-3 times the company’s energy needs in summer, or an average of 110% of its needs year-round. It is important to note that Redwood Hill is feeding electricity into Pacific Gas & Electric’s system, and then taking electricity out as needed.  The company is not off the grid, nor is it storing electricity in batteries on site.

Solar panels on the creamery's roof.

Although Bice acknowledges that the process of installing a solar system won’t be easy for small producers – there is a great deal of research, time, and cost involved – the results truly speak for themselves. The farm, homes, and dairy affiliated with Redwood Hill have also been converted to solar systems, so the company is truly solar-powered “from farm to finished product.” Along with improving Redwood Hill’s environmental footprint and dramatically reducing utility costs, this has also given a boost to Redwood Hill’s public image: customers are thrilled with the company’s demonstrated commitment to green energy. Redwood Hill is celebrating this milestone on packaging for its yogurts and kefirs, with this inspirational message: “Let the sun shine in!”

If members of the ACS community are interested in learning more about Redwood Hill’s solar panels, Jennifer Bice is happy to share her experiences and advice. She can be reached at [email protected].