Serendipity is when things just seamlessly come together in a way that benefits all concerned. It happened in the small town of Aromas, California, population 2650, one summer night in 2017. Aromas is home to the A.R. Wilson Quarry. The granite quarry is part of Graniterock, a family-owned mining and building materials supply company that has been in business since 1900 and is the largest consumer of electricity in the area.
Seth Capron is a member of the Aromas Progressive Action League. He wondered if a residence or commercial building could have net zero carbon emission, maybe an entire community could achieve net zero status as well. He discussed his idea with Ben Eichert and Daniel Nelson of the Romero Institute, a local environmental advocacy group that had just completed the Greenpower project, whose goal was to get communities in Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Cruz Counties to participate in Monterey Bay Community Power, a new publicly-run utility company whose mission is to provide renewable electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses.
Naturally, if the three wanted to bring net zero practices to Aromas, they had to get Graniterock on board. So they approached the company and were pleasantly surprised to find its executives were open to the idea. In fact, they had been discussing ways to make their operations more environmentally friendly. In 2018, it built a 3000-panel solar installation at the entrance to the quarry, which reduced its reliance on electricity from the grid. In 2019, the company headquarters was converted to a partial net zero facility by installing ultra-efficient lighting, upgrading the heating and cooling system, employing a rooftop solar array to supply most of the building’s electricity, and adding four EV charging stations.
“Environmental stewardship is a priority for our family. We have been in this business for 121 years and we expect to be here for future generations,” says Graniterock owner Rose Ann Woolpert in a blog post. “We want Graniterock to lead our industry in applying green solutions to business problems. Renewable energy is a way to ensure a better quality of life for people in our communities and solar energy makes good business sense.”
Leslie Austin, co-chair of Aromas Progressive Action League, says, “It’s been inspiring to see Graniterock, Greenpower, and APAL work together to realize a shared goal that improves the quality of life for community members and demonstrates the financial and ecological benefits of moving to sustainable energy sources. It took just a few determined people to usher in a large scale renewable climate solution for our small rural community. That’s exciting.”
The $15 million solar farm will be built and managed by Mynt Systems, a solar and energy efficiency firm located in nearby Santa Cruz. It will consist of 15,000 solar panels covering 20 acres of flat land not visible to the public located near the company’s quarry operations. Once completed in 2022, it will provide 5 megawatts of electricity to operate energy-intensive operations such as a giant Krupp rock crusher and several conveyors as well as nearby offices.
“This solar farm allows us to produce cleaner, greener granite, which will be used as part of the region’s construction materials supply chain and result in more sustainable infrastructure projects overall,” says Jon Erskine, director of geological and environmental sciences for Graniterock. “The future is less and less greenhouse gases, and this helps us, our customers, and our community get there.”
The cost of the solar farm will be partially offset by the ability to purchase less electricity from PG&E, whose rates are continuously rising as it struggles to deal with the pandemic of forest fires that have clobbered California in recent years. “What we’ve done essentially is fixed our electrical costs for the next 25 years,” says Graniterock CFO Steve Snodgrass, a strong supporter of the development who played a key role in arranging financing with Wells Fargo bank. “This makes environmental sense and this makes good economic sense.” Doesn’t bet much more serendipitous than that!
The town of Aromas isn’t really a town at all. It’s a “census designated place,” according to Wikipedia. But its inhabitants are strongly in favor of good environmental stewardship and that includes access to renewable energy. The community has not always had the closest of relationships with it largest employer but has embraced Graniterock’s decision to invest in solar energy for its operations. The collaborative approach taken by the community and the quarry should serve as a model for other communities and business leaders in other parts of the country.