Frito-Lay solar system puts the sun in SunChips, takes advantage of renewable energy

A five=acre field near the Frito-Lay plant will have 54,000 square feet of mirrors to capture the sun's rays.  Half are installed now.
A five=acre field near the Frito-Lay plant will have 54,000 square feet of mirrors to capture the sun's rays. Half are installed now. Modesto Bee

The Frito-Lay plant in Modesto will start using a new ingredient of sorts to make its SunChips brand snack — the sun.

The company is installing a football field-sized farm of solar collectors next to its plant in the Beard Industrial District, with plans to flip the switch on Earth Day.

The solar field is made up of large curved mirrors that move with the position of the sun, focusing the heat into tubes of glass filled with water. That water is directed into the plant's boiler system, where it will be converted into steam to heat the oil used to cook SunChips.

"This is the first time we're using the technology in this scenario," said Aurora Gonzalez, spokeswoman for Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo. "You normally use natural gas to heat the cookers. This is an alternative. It will generate enough steam to produce the plant's SunChips within a year."

Half of the solar collectors are installed and being tested, with a launch date of April 22. Once the second half of the project is completed in July, about 54,000 square feet of mirrors on five acres will absorb the sun's rays.

Modesto's sun-drenched climate made it a natural choice for a solar farm, Gonzalez said. The Modesto region recorded 306 days in the past year that weren't cloudy or partly cloudy, according to statistics from the National Weather Service.

Seven Frito-Lay plants in the United States make SunChips, but Modesto is the first to use solar power to make the multigrain snack. Plans are in the works to use the technology at a factory in Casa Grande, Ariz., Gonzalez said.

Economic development specialists in Stanislaus County hope other companies will follow Frito-Lay's lead and look to the Central Valley as a place to harness the sun's energy.

"The timing and focus on renewable energy is very prevalent," said Doug Sweetland, director of economic development for the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.

Energy and power costs are among the chief concerns of manufacturing firms when considering locations, Sweetland said. Frito-Lay can be touted as an example of a company using alternative energy in Stanislaus County as a supplement to the power grid, he said.

"We continue to get interest from companies that are looking at potential areas in the county for the installation of solar panel farms," Sweetland said. "We're in an ideal location to do that."

The solar collectors are a "perfect win-win" for the Modesto Irrigation District, which serves the Frito-Lay plant, as well as other industrial users in Stanislaus County, said Richard Harriman, a Modesto environmental attorney who advocates for MID ratepayers.

Cutting power production costs

"We can really make a big cut into the power production requirements and cost long-term of having to buy hydrocarbon fuels," Harriman said. Cutting the cost of production in Modesto will give the city a competitive advantage in attracting new industries, he said.

At full capacity, the solar panels in Modesto will produce 14,700 MMBTU (one million British Thermal Units) a year. It takes roughly the same amount of energy to run the SunChips manufacturing line, which operates at about 2.4 MMBTU an hour, or 14,600 MMBTU a year.

Gonzalez wouldn't give the cost of installation, describing it only as "significant," but said that Frito-Lay believes the benefits are worth the cost.

Harriman said that while it still costs more per kilowatt for solar power than natural gas, an investment in solar energy pays off in the long run.

"We should be investing in solar even though it is more expensive now," he said. "Over time, the cost of oil and gas and fossil fuels are going to continue to go up."

Frito-Lay is embarking on an advertising blitz to promote its efforts, including a series of print advertisements, billboards, a Web site and TV commercials that begin airing today.

The newspaper advertisements and billboards are described as "solar-powered." Readers will be directed to hold up the print advertisement to the sun to unveil a message, and outdoor billboards will cast shadows over lettering as the sun moves across the sky.

The company worked with the California Energy Commission on the Modesto project, and the designs for the solar panels were approved by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at or 238-4574.