(Jan. 15) Exeter, Calif.-based Peninsula Packaging Co. has reduced its average monthly electrical bill by nearly $50,000 by installing a massive state-of-the-art solar power array.

Ed Byrne, co-owner and general manager of Peninsula Packaging, said the cost of the solar array, erected on seven acres adjacent to the plastic clamshell manufacturing plant, was $8.3 million. He said the reduction in electrical bills — plus state and federal incentives — will permit the company to recapture the investment in five years.

“I’m told this is the largest privately owned tracking photovoltaic array in the country,” Byrne said.

The 1,100 solar cells are mounted in north-south rows and rotate to follow the sun from east to west. Byrne said the panels, installed by PowerLight Corp. of Berkeley, Calif., are guaranteed for 25 years, but he said some experts predict they will function for a century.

“The solar array will mean a 30% savings in the plant’s average monthly power bill of $150,000,” he said.

After three years of study and development, the network of solar cells went online in November. It is designed to produce up to 2,000 megawatt hours annually. Byrne said the company plans to add another solar power grid on the roof of the 350,000-square-foot building.

Byrne said Peninsula Packaging, which manufacturers a variety of clamshell products, had gross revenues of $50 million in 2006. He said the company’s primary customers are packer-shippers, but it also serves airlines, bakeries and foodservice. Peninsula was founded in 2002.

Byrne, a 26-year veteran of the package manufacturing industry, admits he thought clamshells would never play a key role in the produce industry when strawberry packers began using them in 1989.

“The industry and I have learned nearly all produce in clamshells suffers less bruising in shipping, there is less shrinkage for retailers, and the clamshells are an added protection for food safety,” he said.