More California farmers invest in solar power


Issue Date: September 7, 2011
By Kate Campbell
A new solar array at Morada Produce near Linden supplies as much as 70 percent of the grower-shipper’s power needs.
Photos/Kate Campbell
Company owner Skip Foppiano said the system helps the company hedge against increased energy costs, is good for the environment and provides shaded parking for company employees.
Photos/Kate Campbell
Processing and packing lines at Morada Produce use solar power to run equipment including conveyors, forklifts and cooling warehouses.
Photos/Kate Campbell
When employees finish working for the day, they also find that parking under the company’s solar panels shades their vehicles.
Photos/Kate Campbell

Editor's note: California farmers and ranchers lead the nation in use of solar power. At the same time, government renewable-energy mandates have added pressure for conversion of productive farmland for utility-scale solar energy projects. In a two-part series, Ag Alert® looks at the effects on agriculture from solar power. This week: how farmers have embraced solar power on their operations.

With harvest in full swing, trucks laden with bell peppers, watermelon and onions unloaded at a rapid pace last week at Morada Produce near Linden. Crews washed and packed the produce into boxes before a chain of forklifts carried the market-bound food to coolers.

Harvest activity is being played out across California right now, but there's something different about Morada Produce: The company's energy-intensive packing and cooling activities are costing a fraction of what electricity bills totaled in the past.

Skip Foppiano, owner of Morada Produce, pointed to a newly installed two-acre, 390 kilowatt solar energy system outside his office. The once-unpaved employee parking lot is now shaded by four canopies of solar photovoltaic panels that measure more than 40,000 square feet.

The company spent nearly a year researching solar technology to determine the best system for its needs and carefully analyzed the investment decision to determine cost benefits and eventual payback. Foppiano said the new system supplies 60 percent to 70 percent of the energy needed for the farm's packing and cooling activities.

The solar energy is delivered from the onsite system when utility rates are at their highest, he explained.

"Our family has been farming here since the Gold Rush," Foppiano said. "We've always tried new technology to stay competitive. Solar helps us do that and it's the right thing to do for the environment."

Foppiano said the farming operation worked very closely with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., county government and the equipment vendor to complete the project. An investment tax credit and historically low interest rates helped make the system "pencil out," he said, adding that payback will take about nine years—or less—depending on future energy prices.

An increasing number of California farmers are doing the math and deciding that 20 to 25 years of reduced energy costs makes sense, solar experts say.

Already, California agriculture leads the nation in renewable energy production. But with state government incentives aimed at generating 33 percent of the state's generating capacity from renewable energy sources by 2020, agriculture has been investing in solar technology at an increasing rate.

Many wineries, nut processing and packing operations have installed photovoltaic panels during the past decade. But now, lower-priced equipment and technological advances have encouraged more farms and agricultural businesses to consider solar power.

A 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that California leads the nation in on-farm renewable power generation in all categories: wind turbines, methane digesters and solar panels. But when it comes to using solar panels, California farms account for about 25 percent of the total installed on farms nationwide.

"It all comes down to finding the technology that makes financial sense," said Holli Tamas of Granite Bay Energy, which designs and installs solar energy systems, including projects for agricultural customers.

"Farms are unlike many of our commercial customers who look at shorter payback times," Tamas said. "Farmers whose families have been in business generations are more likely to think 'I'm still going to be here in 10 or 20 years.' Farmers are very savvy about these kinds of investments.''

There is a distinct difference between energy generated on-site for equipment operation and heating and cooling. This is different than power generated for sale and distribution on the electric grid.

In Sierra County, hay grower and cattle rancher Dave Roberti has been putting the finishing touches on a 500 kilowatt system that tracks sunlight to power nine 100-horsepower irrigation pumps.

"Originally, we looked at wind power because we thought we were in a windy spot," Roberti explained. "But instead, at 5,000 feet, we found we're in an ideal location for solar energy production year-round, even when it's cold and snowy. After we ran the complete analysis, we found solar gave us the best bang for the buck."

He said the technology offered a way to lock in costs for operating the ranch's irrigation pumps.

"When the system goes online, we'll be producing power for just about what our retail rates are," said Roberti, who is a California Farm Bureau director. "It's a no-brainer. In about 10 years, the system will be paid off. I'm trading payments to my utility for payments on an equipment mortgage. The difference is, there's a payoff on the equipment."

Because Roberti buys power from a rural electric district, he was not eligible for incentives from the California Solar Energy Initiative, which is overseen by the California Public Utilities Commission.

The 10-year, nearly $3 billion program provides incentives for solar system installations to residential and commercial customers of the state's three investor-owned utilities: PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric.

Incentive funding for solar projects in PG&E and SDG&E service territory is no longer available for non-residential projects. Officials at the CPUC said commercial applicants will be put on a wait list.

Ventura County lemon grower Limoneira installed a 900 kilowatt solar array next to its processing facility about three years ago. Harold Edwards, Limoneira CEO, said the company had been exploring solar power generation for about 10 years, but couldn't find a way to justify the investment economically.

"But, as the price of the panels has come down, and with a sale-and-lease-back arrangement, we began to see that the cost benefit was adequate," Edwards said. "But it's not just about dollars and cents. Not only is it good for the environment, but as we have the opportunity to host tours and school groups, it's also a great opportunity to talk about agriculture and how it works with the environment.

"It's amazing the way our investment in solar technology is working out," he said.

Next week: Renewable-energy mandates touch off a new land rush, as developers of utility-scale solar projects propose to convert productive farmland.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.