Sonoma County airport going 100% renewable energy in 2020 with parking lot solar canopy

Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport is going solar, joining a growing number of commercial airfields across the country that are putting up panels and plugging into green energy sources to reduce power costs and put a dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

Under a project in the works since 2014 and authorized by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, airport officials expect next spring to begin installation work on a solar panel canopy system over a newly expanded long-term parking lot. The system is expected to supply power for all of the airport’s needs, save for the tenants, including concessionaires such as the Sky Lounge Steakhouse & Sushi Bar.

Forefront Power, based in San Francisco, will own, operate and maintain the solar system and sell the energy it produces back to the airport at a fixed rate of about 13 cents per kilowatt hour. The rates the airport pays vary, but specifics were not immediately available Tuesday, airport officials said. The agreement with ForeFront is expected to save the airport $3.1 million in power costs over the 20-year term, as well as reduce the facility’s yearly carbon footprint by nearly 1,000 metric tons - the equivalent of about 2.5 million miles traveled by an average vehicle.

The county experiences about 11 million miles traveled per day, generating roughly 6,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the county’s transportation authority. Supervisors said they hoped the project would be an early step toward other green-focused county infrastructure with greater reductions in the future.

“It’s our efforts to be very serious about taking on climate change,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “We need to, now more than ever, and this is the way we should go.”

The installation is proposed for the long-term parking lot, including 450 spaces, just east of the terminal. Utility hookups were included in construction there in anticipation of the planned solar panel canopy.

The airport won’t spend any money toward the estimated $3.5 million cost of the solar canopy. With its focus of available funds on a $25 million 30,000-square-foot expansion that should see work begin in January, the airport would be unable to build what other cities already have without the agreement. The expansion’s completion date is set for the end of 2022.

The building wave of airports with solar panels to help bring in renewable energy - now into the dozens - spans the entire nation, from Honolulu to Denver and Indianapolis to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Santa Rosa’s regional airstrip is one of the next.

“There’s many airports that have solar now. It’s become more mainstream,” airport Manager Jon Stout said. “With the terminal project and the gate expansion, we just don’t have the capital to be able to invest in it.”

The airport has the ability to buy the solar infrastructure from the operator for fair market value after the fifth year of the deal, however. The offer stands through the life of the contract, dropping to an estimated $500,000 price tag by the end of the agreement, and the county can also choose to renew the deal for five more years when it ends in July 2041.

The solar panels and other components have about a 20-year life, however. Board Chairman David Rabbitt said he was concerned about a large, looming capital cost to overhaul the solar canopy once the deal expires if the county decided to buy the system at that time.

“What I don’t want to have is to own an asset that is worthless at Year 20,” he said.

But because ForeFront must hit a 95% annual performance output to meet the terms of the contract, panels and other components will be repaired or replaced in a timely manner, said Caroline Judy, director of the county’s general services department.

A study required by the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure glare from the solar panels doesn’t conflict with the air traffic control tower is expected to be wrapped up by the end of the year, with design of the project finished by January.

If the glare issue can’t be sufficiently resolved, the project will be moved to the airport’s other long-term parking lot northeast of the terminal

The county’s nearby fleet operations building is also set for installation of a much smaller solar panel system atop its roof. That project is expected to be operating by next fall and would save the county $500,000 over the 20-year deal, and eliminate another 200 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think you will see the board in the next year is going to be really, really strong on climate change, so we’re doing anything that we can do from the airport, our water systems, our road system for reducing (greenhouse gases),” said Johannes Hoevertsz, the county’s transportation and public works director. “This is just one big example. You’re going to see us ramping up and trying to become more green as we move forward.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins applauded the projects while calling on rental car companies at the airport to join the effort by offering more electric vehicle rental options. The companies could be using the 17 electric charging stations now located at the airport, including four Tesla models - all of which will soon be operating on 100% renewable, on-site generated electricity, she said.

Tuesday’s approval marked another small move toward greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, while offering a minor convenience to car owners: the canopy will help shield vehicles parked for days at a time from the sun and bad weather.

“So it’s a great benefit for travelers,” said Stout. “The FAA is encouraging more sustainable projects for airports. It’s still on the innovative side, but it’s also becoming catch-up now because it’s getting to be more common. We’re moving the ball.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to clarify that the greenhouse gas emission reductions the airport expects from the solar canopy are annual estimates, and not over the life of the 20-year contract with ForeFront Power.

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