Green businesses sprouting at closed Air Force bases

By on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif: It may be counterintuitive to think of Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites as hotbeds of green technology. But as Air Force Real Property Agency representatives — responsible for buying, selling and managing Air Force property worldwide — continue cleaning, restoring and transferring property to local communities, five former California Air Force bases are attracting more clean, green businesses by the day.

McClellan and Mather in Sacramento, George in Victorville, Castle in Atwater, March in Riverside, and Norton in San Bernardino — all on the EPA’s National Priorities List due to pollution from former days — house a growing number of businesses promoting environmentally-friendly practices and products.

McClellan Park in Sacramento may be the green giant of the group, with numerous tenants on the leading edge of green technology. One is the 91,000-square-foot factory of ZETA Communities, manufacturers of “net-zero energy” homes, which produce as much energy as they use over the course of a year. Constructed in modules, the buildings use photovoltaic power, also known as solar power; Energy Star appliances; ultra-efficient insulation; and high-performance windows, among other features. ZETA Communities, headquartered in San Francisco, won Green Builder magazine’s 2009 Home of the Year Award for a 1,540-square-foot modular home now permanently located near a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland. Workers at the McClellan Park factory can produce five modules, the equivalent of two townhouses, per day.

ZETA also manufactures energy-efficient mixed-use facilities at McClellan and is planning to produce green housing and other buildings for various military bases around the U.S., according to Shilpa Sankaran, vice president of business operations and co-founder.

Technicians at Fiberwood LLC, also at McClellan, operate a successful business recycling 50-100 tons of newspaper per day into a product called hydroseed mulch. Mixed with whatever seeds a contractor wants to add, as well as water and fertilizer, it’s sprayed wet on highway embankments, large building sites, and sites damaged by fire to control erosion and dust. The mulch keeps the seeds wet to promote rapid germination. Fiberwood recently expanded to produce spray-on building insulation, called Kozi, also made of recycled materials, in this case denim and cardboard. “We’re using totally recycled material,” Stuart Douglass, president of Fiberwood said. “It’s absolutely natural and healthy.” The company is currently testing recycled paper animal bedding.

McClellan is also the headquarters of Renewable Energy Institute International, which recently received a $20 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a biorefinery in Port of Toledo, Ohio. There, crop waste such as rice hulls will be converted into diesel fuel.

Ternion Bio-Industries, based in San Jose, established a research and development facility at McClellan, where the company recently built what’s believed to be the first commercial-scale bioreactor designed to use algae to reduce carbon emissions. The three-story tall reactor can grow the amount of algae produced in almost three acres of open ponds in less than 300 square feet. Future customers such as power plants and refineries will feed their CO2 emissions to the algae, which, like all plants, needs CO2 to live.

SunEdison, North America’s largest solar energy provider, has its Renewable Operations Center in a former airplane hangar at McClellan. SunEdison has about 80 megawatts of generation capacity under management across some 300 solar power plants. At the center, SunEdison’s photovoltaic power systems are monitored, remote diagnostics are analyzed and service fleets dispatched as necessary.

Beutler Heating and Air Conditioning, based at McClellan, is selling and installing Yes! Solar products made by Solar Power Inc. for residential and commercial use. Beutler officials advertise turnkey solutions for clients interested in switching to solar power.

Recently, McClellan Business Park officials signed a lease with representatives of N Solar Inc. based in Seoul, South Korea, who plan to manufacture solar modules beginning in September, eventually employing 150 people at the site. N Solar’s headquarters also will be housed at the 128,000-square-foot McClellan site. The company is a subsidiary of Millinet, an information technology company.

Across town at Mather Commerce Center, American River College is holding classes in a former Air Force diesel equipment repair shop to teach students about clean-diesel technology. In the wake of tougher state and federal emission control standards, the certificate program trains students to repair and retrofit trucks and buses. Craig Weckman, chair of the clean-diesel technology department at ARC, said the class is so popular it has students wait-listed for admission.

Also at Mather, workers at California Electronic Asset Recovery, Inc. recycle electronics such as televisions, computers, VCRs, DVDs, phones, copiers, printers, microwaves and small appliances. Some electronic devices are refurbished and sold. Those categorized as “end of life” are disassembled at CEAR, where hazardous materials such batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and mercury switches are removed and sent to other recyclers. The business prevents lead, mercury and other toxics used in electronics from entering landfills.

In Victorville, at the former George Air Force Base, now known as Southern California Logistics Airport, another kind of recycling is taking place on a massive scale. The Aircraft Recycling Corporation is involved in the demolition, dismantling, salvage and scrapping of outdated or accident-damaged aircraft. “About 80-85% of an aircraft is recyclable material,” said Doug Scroggins, managing director of ARC. Aircraft aluminum cannot be used to make aluminum cans or another aircraft, he said. But it can be used for auto parts, furniture, and other items. Airplane seat cushions are shredded and used as packing material. Carpeting and passenger windows also are recycled. From time to time, a cockpit is donated to a museum.

“It doesn’t matter where the aircraft is,” Mr. Scroggins said, noting that company technicians will travel wherever there’s an unwanted plane to dismantle it, pick up the material and transport it to a processor. He and his associates have gone as far as Guam to recycle aircraft. He said planes arriving in Victorville for recycling already have been stripped of hazardous materials.

At the former Norton Air Force Base, now the San Bernardino International Airport, tenant Kelly Space & Technology has invented a WiseLight technology that remotely controls outdoor lighting, saving both energy and money. Officials with the city of Los Alamitos are using WiseLight on tennis courts, softball and soccer fields, according to Jason Lee, Kelly’s director of operations.

In some cases, it’s the buildings and corporate business practices that are attracting the attention of green advocates. Also at San Bernardino International Airport, officials at Kohl’s Department Stores, headquartered in Menomonee Falls, Wisc., built an enormous solar array on the rooftop of their San Bernardino Distribution Center. There, 6,208 solar panels generate 1 megawatt of power, enough to power 400 homes for a year. Kohl’s officials also use solar energy for partial power at nearly half of their retail outlets. Since October, 2008, all trucks transporting Kohl’s goods from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are fuelled by liquefied natural gas, the cleanest burning fossil fuel.

Officials at Tesco, an enormous British corporation which operates about 200 Fresh and Easy neighborhood grocery stores in the Western U.S., built their main distribution center at the former March Air Force Base in Riverside. In 2007, they installed a $13 million solar roof on their five-building, 820,400-square-foot facility. The chain also uses hybrid refrigeration trucks which can be plugged in while they’re at the center, minimizing CO2 emissions and noise. Managers at each Fresh and Easy store return all display and shipping materials to the distribution center, where they are recycled or re-used.

And Mark Hendrickson, director of the Merced County Department of Commerce, Aviation and Economic Development, is trying to establish a Merced County Green/Solar Technology Innovation Hub, or iHub, at the former Castle Air Force Base, now Castle Commerce Center. The idea is to create jobs capitalizing on new green technologies being researched and developed through the University of California-Merced. UC Merced’s non-imaging optics laboratory at Castle engages in design, development and testing of solar concentrators for photovoltaic and solar thermal system applications. A two-acre solar test center is proposed for adjacent land at Castle.

The iHUB proposal involves a partnership between the cities of Atwater, Los Banos and Livingston; Merced Community College; UC Merced; Merced County; the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce; the UC Merced Small Business Development Center; and others “to create a culture for inventions and patents that produce marketable and sustainable applications targeting the field of energy and solar research, and to prepare a workforce for the renewable energy industry,” according to a recent proposal. The area has chronic high unemployment and a poverty rate of 19.3 percent, compared to the statewide average of 12.4 percent in 2008, according to Census Bureau estimates.

As closed Air Force bases around California continue transforming into vibrant corporate complexes, their ability to attract tenants exploring green technologies is unlocking tremendous potential for jobs and growth. At least one of them, McClellan Business Park, coincidentally the green giant of the group, has more people working there now than it did when McClellan Air Force Base closed in 2001.

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