Mendota Sees Ray Of Light

Mendota Sees Ray Of Light

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MENDOTA, Calif--The jobs picture just got brighter in a drought-stricken city where two of every five residents are unemployed.

When Meridian Energy USA built its 50-acre solar farm on unused farmland near Belmont Avenue, the company recruited and trained about 80 residents to install 50,000 solar modules.

Among the recruits was Fermín Gómez, an unemployed construction worker.

"When I heard about the program, I had to do it," Gómez said. "The training was very simple. It was about 30 hours, and we worked full time once we were recruited."

The work was temporary, but Gómez thinks the training and experience will open a door for future solar energy work.

Mendota Mayor Robert Silva was pleased that Meridian donated $20,000 to the Westside Institute of Technology to train workers like Gómez.

"It is a field of dreams for us, because we have been hit with so much," Silva said June 1 during a ceremony unveiling the solar farm. "We have been hit with water cut-offs and high unemployment rates. Projects like these are essential to the valley."

The solar farm will employ a small work force for maintenance, security and landscape work.

Silva said developers of other projects are "knocking at the door" and that the city welcomes them.

With the first utility-scale solar farm in the Central Valley, Mendota seeks to begin a trend in state efforts to produce alternate renewable-energy sources.

A 20-year lease with Meridian will generate annual revenues for Mendota. Electricity from the solar farm, known as CalRENEW-1, will be allocated as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. sees fit.

Negotiations for the project began in 2007 between Meridian Energy and Cleantech America, a small San Francisco company whose goal was to respond to California's mandated requirements for renewable energy.

Meridian Chief Executive Officer Bill Overholt said Mendota was chosen for the solar farm primarily because of the strong, direct sunlight it gets throughout the year and the availability of good soil. Special consideration was given to Mendota, he said, because of the City Council's enthusiasm for the project.

Meridian Energy, the largest state-owned electricity generator in New Zealand, produces electricity via wind farms throughout the country and wanted to tap into the U.S. market.

David Castillo, director of the Westside Institute of Technology, said projects in the Valley will continue to grow and that the "demand for renewable-energy jobs" would be needed. The institute, because it has branch locations, would attract people from the Valley who seek local employment, he said.

Most of the training would be held in Coalinga, Lemoore, Hanford and Mendota.

John Bohn of the California Public Utilities Commission congratulated Mendota for "standing up as a leader" in the renewable-energy movement. Mendota was one of the few cities that was "very open to the idea" of bringing the solar farm to the community from the beginning, he said.