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MID pondering solar panel project north of Modesto

Modesto Irrigation District officials signaled Tuesday that they are ready to take their first big plunge into solar power.

The district board heard a report on a proposal to turn a 160-acre expanse of land on the northeast corner of McHenry Avenue and Patterson Road into a solar energy field.

The 25-megawatt project would provide just 2 percent of the MID's power, but it would help the district meet a state mandate for renewable energy.

The $150 million-plus system, which would be built and owned by SunPower Corp. of San Jose, would bring an estimated 50 jobs during construction and property taxes for years to come.

"It's local," said Greg Salyer, manager of resource planning and development for the MID. "We have the advantage that it sits right here in our service territory."

The board is scheduled to vote Jan. 12 on the project, which could be running by spring 2011. The district would incur about $4 million in upfront costs, mainly for connecting the system to its grid.

The price per kilowatt-hour is being negotiated, but officials said the power likely would cost the district about $10 million a year over 25 years.

Because solar costs more than conventional sources -- mainly hydro, natural gas and coal -- the project could require a rate increase of perhaps 1.5 percent in 2011, officials said.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has ordered that utilities get at least 33 percent of their electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2020. The state has not set rules for carrying this out. The hyrdroelectric power generated for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts from Don Pedro Dam near La Grange does not count.

The aim is to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, which are believed to be changing Earth's climate in a way that could heat up the San Joaquin Valley and reduce the Sierra Nevada snowpack.

SunPower would build the solar project on a leased piece of land a half-mile wide on each side. The site is mostly bare ground but has a home that would remain, said Jeffrey Dasovich, managing director of utilities and power plants for the company.

The project would not produce air pollution or noise, Salyer said, and it could be screened by bushes if needed.

The MID and SunPower representatives plan to meet with nearby residents to explain the project in early January, spokeswoman Melissa Wil-liams said. The area includes Del Rio Country Club and a mix of other homes, businesses and farmland.

Dasovich said the rows upon rows of gleaming panels could be attractive to the public.

"It will be in a spot where educational opportunities will be significant," he said. "We get a lot of requests to tour our sites."

The MID gets 12 percent of its power from renewable sources, almost all of it wind from Solano County and Washington state. Scattered solar systems on home and business roofs contribute a tiny amount.

Solar advocates have been urging the MID to support large systems within its boundaries to boost the local economy.

"It's right here in the community," district board member John Kidd said of the McHenry project. "And it's a good thing, because if we're going to have to have the green power, let's get it in our back yard."

The project also reduces the need for new transmission lines for distant sources of power. One such project -- with a possible route right past the solar site -- was canceled in July after protests from residents.

The McHenry project has emerged just as Stanislaus County officials are exploring large solar projects at the Fink Road landfill and the former Geer Road dump.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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